Am I Damned or Blessed?
In his 2014 book “Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion” philosopher Sam Harris makes a compelling case for restoring spirituality to its etymological roots and removing it from the realm of religious thinking and the supernatural. In a blog post before the publication of the book Harris noted that;
“The word “spirit” comes from the Latin spiritus, which in turn is a translation of the Greek pneuma, meaning “breath.” Around the 13th century, the term became bound up with notions of immaterial souls, supernatural beings, ghosts, etc. It acquired other connotations as well—we speak of the spirit of a thing as its most essential principle, or of certain volatile substances and liquors as spirits.”
If the roots of the word lie in “breath” it shouldn’t be too much of a leap to suggest that things spiritual are things that make us feel alive. If we don’t breathe we don’t live and if others do not feel the impact of our breath, then how do we differ from any inanimate object? Religion, of course, can provide feelings of being alive; the joy of communal singing, the sense of belonging, the notion of purpose to life are all valuable. Spirituality though does not have to mean the acceptance of a God or Gods.
Harris goes on to note that atheists, sceptics and believers alike have an issue with the use or appropriation of the word spiritual for differing reasons. One can understand why but, to my mind, it is undeniable that there are moments, fleeting at times, that make us feel something that can only be described as spiritual. More tangible emotions can be attached to such moments of course. When I held my daughter in my arms for the first time I felt an overwhelming joy, an unconditional love, I cried a little…but there was something more than that too. I felt something; spiritual. I felt the breath of life. I felt alive. It was a deeply profound and moving experience. There have been others like it, although perhaps none quite so intense.
From the sublime to the comparatively ridiculous. Popular music has long had the capacity to make me feel joyous, comforted, understood, elated, uplifted and at peace in an, at times, turbulent personal life and hectic wider world. Stood in the midst of a crowd of people all united by their love of the song, the singer and the band, eyes cast up, feet moving, body swaying, hands clapping, voice shouting praises can be a spiritual experience. There is much in common with the religious experience…perhaps only communion of some form is absent. No band bring me closer to that feeling of the spiritual than James.
It seems like a long time ago now.
At my age everything seems like a long time ago.
Maybe everything seems like a long time ago at any age.
It’s 1989, which really is a long time ago, and I have recently turned sixteen. I’m clumsy and shy. I’ve got terrible acne. My hair is greasy no matter what shampoo I use or how often I use it. I’m a bit awkward. I’m not bright but I’m not dim. I’m a teenager. Sometimes I feel like I might still be a teenager. Doesn’t everyone?
I’ve made friends with a boy called Dave.
Dave is just like me.
Actually Dave isn’t just like me, he’s different in one crucial respect.
His record collection doesn’t contain a single album or single by Rick Astley. My own contains at least two albums by Rick and a few singles too. I’m pretty sure at this point that his version of “When I Fall in Love” is even better than the original. I’ve also convinced myself that he is a style icon; my wardrobe contains some cream chinos and a blue double breasted blazer. There is no use apologizing now…it’s too late.
One night in the bedroom of Dave he puts a record on.
A single by a band I’ve never heard.
It’s not Rick Astley and it isn’t Erasure so I’m a bit out of my depth.
I’m exaggerating here.
My record collection isn’t quite as awful as I’m making out…it does contain “The World Won’t Listen” by The Smiths but only because another friend recorded it on the other side of a C90 cassette I had given him to record the Westworld album.
You don’t remember Westworld?
“Sonic Boom Boy”?
Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that I was beginning the tentative journey from popkid to indie kid.
This record that is now booming around Dave’s bedroom isn’t The Smiths. It’s something different. Something new. It’s making me feel…well, frankly, happy. There is piano and horns and guitars and drums and it has a groove that makes me want to dance.
Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.
Stepping from side to side and sort of wiggling my hands a bit.
That’s me dancing.
“Who is this?” I ask Dave over the glorious racket.
“James” he replies.
“Who?” I say.
He shakes his head.
Dave is one of those guys. He finds a band nobody else has heard of, drops their name into every conversation, giggles furiously at the ignorance of those who don’t know them and then ditches the band whenever they gain a modicum of public attention.
The record is “Come Home”.
It’s the first thing I ever heard by James.
I’m 17 now and I’ve got a girlfriend.
A proper girlfriend.
We’ve done snogging and everything.
Yes, I know 17 seems a bit late to be getting your first proper girlfriend but there are mitigating factors; I’m acne ridden and a bit odd. Not odd odd but odd enough. She lives on the other side of the country and I travel over on the bus every Friday night to spend the weekend at her parents place. Her bedroom is basically a cupboard…a long narrow cupboard. It’s big enough for a single bed, a bookcase and a little desk and chair. On the desk and chair sits her collection of cassettes and a cassette player. On Saturdays she works in a local pharmacists and so I am left alone. One of her cassettes is called “Seven” by a band called James. “I’ve heard of James” I think to myself. “They did that “Come Home” song and the one where everyone sits down.”
I put the cassette in the player and wait to hear something familiar. I don’t. Instead I hear something that I won’t ever forget. An album that I don’t want to stop. Every new song lifting me up, filling my heart, making me cry, soothing my aches and heartbreaks. As I listen I feel like I am swimming in a warm pool at night. The music washing over me, my eyes closed and my heartbeat slowing and quickening depending on what I am feeling. I’m in love.
Like most teenage boys though I can’t commit and I forget about James for a while. I get swept up in the nonsense of Britpop and try to convince myself that it’s 1964 and I’m the face. I’m not. I start trying to dress a bit like Damon All Bran because the girls like him. It’s a bit tragic.
Towards the end of the Britpop “era” I am in a car with my new best friend (told you I couldn’t commit) Chris. It’s late at night and we are heading home from a night at a club. He doesn’t have a tape deck in his car so we are listening to the radio. Maybe it’s Steve Lamacq. Maybe it’s somebody else. As we drive and talk and listen and laugh a song comes on…it’s so quiet, so delicate, so fragile, so beautiful that we stop talking and laughing and just listen. I don’t recognise the song but it seems so familiar. It makes me feel like I’m back in my old girlfriends bedroom on a grey, rainy Saturday afternoon feeling happy about being there. “Blue Pastures” by James the DJ informs us. Neither one of us says anything for a while then we turn the radio off so we can talk about what we had just heard. We are both moved. We both felt something. We are both glad to have heard it.
Chris isn’t part of my life now. He moved away and we drifted apart. Even (anti) social media hasn’t allowed us to reconnect. When I listen to “Whiplash” though I think about the times we spent together. I think about how much he meant to me. I think about how I’ll never have a “best mate” like him again. Then “Blue Pastures” arrives and I don’t feel maudlin…I feel the closeness of being in that car and sharing something so special.
I love you Chris.
In 2014 I stumble across a video for a new single from James. The single is called “Moving On” and the video has been made by Ainslie Henderson, a BAFTA Award winning director of short animation. You probably know him best for being the indie kid on BBC talent show “Fame Academy” though. That’s a shame because his artistic output as an animator dwarfs his musical offerings. I watch the video and listen to the song. By the time it has finished I am crying.
Fat drops of salt water rolling down my middle-aged cheeks.
I feel like I’ve been punched in the gut.
I sit quietly thinking about what’s just happened then I play the song again.
In the video a man sits by the side of his dying wife. He watches her shrug off this mortal coil…literally unravelling in front of him. He grabs at the threads of her life and tries desperately to keep her with him. It’s futile of course, when our time has come then our time has come. I’m reminded of the passing of my maternal grandmother. Sent home to die in the comfort and peace of her own home my grandfather sat gently, quietly by her side and held her hand as she slipped away. But she wouldn’t leave. Each time it seemed as though a breath would be her final breath…another would come. Eventually we realised that my grandfather was pinching her hand as hard as he could whenever he thought she was gone. Desperate to keep her by his side. Terrified by the prospect of the half life that lay in front of him without her. My mother told him that he had to let her go. He let go of her hand and soon she was gone.
The lyrics to “Moving On” carried as much emotional punch and resonance as the images that accompanied them. “Accept leaving when leavings come”, “Never said I love you, hope you knew.”, “When my pulse beats slow, hope to have you close at hand”, “I’m on my way, leave a little light on”.
Again I watched and listened.
Each time left me reeling just like the first time.
Lots of songs have spoken to me, have described the despair, the longing, the sadness, the joy, the humour, the pain and the loneliness of moments in my life. Songs that saved my life. But for the first time and in my forties something utterly unique had happened as I listened to a pop song; I felt totally connected with the singer, the musicians and with everyone else who would hear it. It was a genuinely spiritual experience…I felt the breath of life fill my lungs and I felt soothed.
Something else happened too; I felt an enormous sense of guilt. At key points in my life this band had been there. Sound-tracking, speaking to and about me, lifting my spirits, comforting me, setting my feet to stomping and my hands to clapping. They had been loyal to me and yet I had drifted from them, never returning the love that they had shown to me. Some people who read this will think this is, at best, ludicrous and, at worst raging, roaring pretentiousness but some will know exactly what I’m talking about. They will understand how the right band, the right song, the right note, the right word can be enough to change you.
This is my apology to James. I’m sorry I didn’t pay you enough attention. I’m sorry I didn’t thank you. I’m sorry your love for me went unrequited for so long. I hope you can forgive me. I hope you know that I’m grateful to you.
I’m grateful that when I felt the breath of sadness you were there to put a smile on my face.
I’m grateful when a suicide pact lay at the back of my mind you were there.
I’m grateful that you showed me a movie that doesn’t deal in black and white.
I’m grateful that you gave me a love that was the drug of healing.