A Basement, Vanishing

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This weekend I’m in Fermanagh, reading, resting and recharging my creative batteries before the mad month of May properly begins. This afternoon we took advantage of a brief break in the drizzle to head down to the Islander Festival in Crom Estate to picnic, ‘neath Northern Irish anorak hoods, dander amidst the Spring bluebells and listen to the lovely Hannah McPhillimy as she entertained the stalwart picnickers with a selection of jazz and blues covers. It was a fantastically civilised way to spend a Sunday afternoon and a great opportunity to spend some time in the company of someone who’s become both a dear friend and one of my favourite Belfast musicians. I could not be more excited about collaborating with Hannah over the next few months, on a wee project we’re tentatively calling Disappear Here. Hannah has a unique voice and song-writing ability and has been incredibly generous in offering to work with me on this project. I’d like to tell you a little more about what we’ve been planning and would love to invite you along to the Belfast Barge when we debut the project, at the beginning of June, as part of the Belfast Book Festival.

11931_10152406386868216_3033846138094231378_nI’ve been re-reading the music critic, Greil Marcus’ exceptional book, Invisible Republic, which chronicles both the recording and the impact of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes. (In 1967 Dylan and the Band holed up in the basement of a house in Woodstock, New York and recorded over 100 songs- a mixture of experimental, new songs and old traditionals- which would be furiously bootlegged, much-analysed and eventually released in 1975). I was particularly taken with the way Marcus refers to the Basement Tapes as an attempt to document a vanishing moment in American culture. He writes the following in particular reference to the Basement Tapes Sessions.

“People like Springsteen had missed something, Dylan said, with Springsteen only eight years younger and still born too late: “They weren’t there to see the end of the traditional people, but I was.” What was he saying? He might have been saying that in 1963 he’d watched Boggs, Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, Clarence Ashley, Bull Kazee, Sara and Maybelle Carter- “the traditional people,” standing on the Newport Stage….

Or he might have been saying something simpler, and harder: “I saw a vanishing.” He was present to witness an extinction, to see the last members of a species disappear. Thus it was left to him to say what went out of the world when the traditional people left the stage…

The uncompleted world of the Basement Tapes was a fantasy beginning in artifacts refashioned by real people, dimly apprehended figures who out of the kettle of the folk revival appeared in the flesh to send an unexpected message. The vanished world they incarnated – as history, a set of facts and an indistinct romance; as a set of artifacts, as a work of art, complete and finished – was going to die and you were going to be the last witness…and as a result of your witnessing, what traces these people might have left behind were to be lodged in you.”

I’ve long pondered and previously written about the idea of witnessing a vanishing. When watching the end of something significant- an era, a life, a culture- the desire to document the details is both an essential part of the grieving process and a means of honouring the past. As I wrote Malcolm Orange Disappears I was also writing a masters dissertation pre-occupied with the notion of defining an American national identity which had disappeared long before it had even been established. For me the history of America, has always been a history of loss. America is a nation formed from a multiplicity of cultural voices. It can only become distinct and autonomous through a process of developing its own distinct national identity and this process will inevitably involve a kind of loss; a severing of ties with the old traditions, a vanishing, as Greil Marcus would put it. On a grand scale and also in the details of each citizens everyday comings and goings, America is both developing and simultaneously disappearing. This understanding underpins all the characters and stories explored in my first novel, Malcolm Orange Disappears.

Everyone in this novel is disappearing in their own peculiar way. Their individual vanishings point towards a bigger national loss and all the various ways in which society can survive, understand and even flourish in the face of loss. Hannah and I have been exploring this idea of American loss over the last few months. I’ve been carefully selecting passages of Malcolm Orange Disappears which engage with this theme and reading some amazing books on the subject. Hannah has been writing a handful of her own songs based on the individual narratives of loss contained in the novel and also curating a number of carefully selected covers which will form a kind of archive for the American disappeared. We’re hoping to pare the material down to around an hour of songs and readings which will form the Disappear Here performance. It’s been an interesting and challenging process and it’s still a work in progress. I’m excited to see how it shapes up in the next month.

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