Sometimes two or more things come at you from completely different directions to establish some kind of weird theme. And so it’s been with the last 24 hours.
During that short space of time I’ve finished reading Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle and listened to a Word podcast in which David Hepworth promotes what sounds like a fascinating book about the year 1971.
The tome in question, 1971 – Never a Dull Moment, provides a very valuable public service, informing us why, without any room for doubt, that year – and no other – was categorically and undeniably the best year for music.
Despite one book being a dystopian novel set in a Nazi-run alternate universe and the other being a music journo’s musings on a bunch of records by David Bowie, Carole King and The Rolling Stones, thematically the two things have a great deal in common. And it all revolves around historic value: the almost sacred affection for all things past.
In The Man in the High Castle, this theme is addressed through the occupying Japanese super power’s love of pre-war American artefacts. They are absolutely obsessed with a previous version of America which has largely been deleted at their own hands.
In the case of David Hepworth’s offering, the book itself is testament to how much we value the old and what has gone, irrecoverably, before.
And both The Man in the High Castle and 1971… consider the flipside of this. What of today’s creative? What of the artefacts we’re producing today which we hope people will admire tomorrow?
With the Philip K Dick novel this idea revolves around jewellery. I suppose it might be sensible to put a SPOILER ALERT in here just in case you’re about to tuck into the book yourself – or watch the Amazon series.
In one of the book’s most dramatic and fascinating scenes, a character by the name of Tagomi starts obsessing over an original piece of jewellery. It’s of interest to him primarily because, though it’s generally held to be of little quality of itself, it is entirely original – unlike anything anyone has ever seen before.
Against a backdrop of people obsessing over the collection of old memorabilia, this little trinket is, in its own small way, revolutionary. In fact, so unconnected is it with anything that has been before that, through some extreme version of mindfulness in which the character explores the way it looks, feels, tastes, smells, it acts as a mystical portal by which Tagomi is able to enter into an alternate reality (which just happens to be ours).
As far as Hepworth’s observations about 1971 go, there may be no mystical portals into alternate dimensions – not literally anyway – but what Dick describes with Tagomi in …High Castle serves as a helpful metaphor for what happened when Joni Mitchell released Blue or when David Bowie created the character of Ziggy Stardust.
In both cases, nothing of the kind had been done before. Hepworth explains on the Word podcast something along the lines of how “when any female singer-songwriter picks up her guitar and sings candidly about relationships nowadays, she does so knowing about Blue by Joni Mitchell. But when Joni Mitchell released Blue, there was no Blue to refer to.”
The same goes for David Bowie adopting his Stardust persona or The Who turning synthesisers into rhythm sections for ‘Baba O’Riley’. It also goes for The Beatles setting the trend by releasing albums filled with, of all things, their own songs. The damned impudence!
Hepworth explains of 1971 how everyone was still living in the moment. The greatest hits tours we get these days were, ironically, a thing of the future. For now, everyone was investing heavily in the now. And with great effect. The sheer creativity of former Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Carole King, Bowie and Marvin Gaye at this time is astonishing.
If the majority of us in the present day can be compared with the Japanese collectors of American nick-nacks in The Man in the High Castle, it’s the likes of the artists whose passing we are beginning to mourn with ridiculous regularity that we can compare with Tagomi: focusing solely on the present until the doorway to something new and exciting opens up – a new way of doing things, a new chord pattern, a new way of playing, a new way of performing.
There’s often a huge conflict between an artist on stage and the people who have come to see them. The fans will want that big hit from 1967; the artist will want to perform the thing he wrote last week.
It seems like a dangerous, uncomfortable thing to think, but maybe if we want to be more like our musical heroes, we might need to put their influence away and focus, Tagomi-like on the present. For the sake of continuing old-time creativity, perhaps we must
A very scary prospect indeed. Maybe I’ll just have one last listen to Led Zeppelin IV, Hunky Dory and Tapestry, before I do that though. Just for old time’s sake.
You can buy The Man in the High Castle from Amazon here