I'm writing this in Berwick Street Studio, working on the soundtrack for Jamie Thraves' film The Low Down. The studio is underground, full of screens and machines, and heavily insulated. So it's hard to remember that just a couple of metres above our heads is Berwick Street, Soho, one of London's most vibrant streets, full of the cries of street hawkers, the colour of fruit and flowers, and the sleazy neon of sex parlours. It's the street shown on the cover of Oasis' 'What's The Story?' album, and as such it stands as an image of hip inner city knowledge, 'the low down' itself.
Right now we're mixing a track that starts with a sort of morse code tattoo then kicks into a big dirty breakbeat. It's designed to accompany opening shots of protagonist Frank walking down the street. He passes a little knot of black guys on the corner, fishes for his keys, and walks into his Dalston flat.
'This place used to be the front line, it used to be really dodgy,' Frank tells girlfriend Ruby. 'Used to be?' she laughs. He lives next door to a crack house, and the couple lie awake listening to people shouting the dealer's name all night. Ruby is a real estate agent, and Frank meets her when, deciding to buy a new house, he walks into the agency where she works. The film shows his ambivalent feelings about leaving his studenty friends and slummy, streety environment, even though he now has the money to live somewhere much nicer, surrounded by trees and high walls.
The phrase 'the low down' suggests street knowledge, and I've been using kabuki drums and morse code on my Jen synth to suggest that what we're getting here is 'the gen', the truth that shoots from the hip. But it's funny, no matter how realistic you make your film, no matter how much insider knowledge you claim to be imparting, you're still making an illusion. You're making a lie that tells the truth, art that, one day, life may decide to copy.
In a film, someone walking down the street is probably going to encounter a life-changing event within the next two minutes, and is soon about to undergo a major emotional transformation. Life isn't like that. A man walking down the street is unlikely to encounter anything more memorable or life-changing than getting asked for money, or noticing there's a sale on, or glimpsing a sexy advertisement, or passing someone he half knew a couple of years ago. And, unless he's wearing a Walkman, he isn't going to have film music pointing up his emotional state.
In 'real life', a lot of what happens just doesn't matter, isn't very memorable, and won't change us.
The Abyss And Other Consoling Fictions
Sometimes significant-seeming co-incidences do occur, things that make us think there might be a writer-director lurking beyond the set somewhere, organising serendipities. Life and art intersected for me when I started contacting musicians and found that the first I called were already in the film as actors! Liz of Chinese string-playing sisters Chi features in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo as an extra in a supper party scene.
And in fact being called to do this work in the first place was interesting, since Jamie Thraves' Radiohead video for 'Just' really had changed my life, to the extent that deciding I hated Radiohead was a major change. Maybe it made me invent Analog Baroque.
When I told Jamie what I objected to in that video, he just laughed. For those who haven't seen it, the film shows a businessman sprawled full-length on the street. A passerby asks him why he's lying there, but the man refuses to tell him. Eventually a crowd gathers and the man relents. His lips move, but we can't hear what ghastly insight he's communicating. All we know is that the next shot is of everybody lying on the ground in the same pose of resigned desperation.
This video turned me against Radiohead because it seemed to be a black romantic vision of what they used to call, in the 19th century, 'the abyss'. It seemed to propose a universe full of meaning, and even if the meaning is terrible, that's something I find a rather cosy and reassuring illusion.
A bit like the illusion that the street is where it's 'real', or that some people are more 'real' than others.
Ari, Bjork, Bobby: Bohemians Of 'The Street' And 'The Moment'
Sometimes you meet people with an amazingly bohemian sense of the moment. In a train full of mute commuter zombies deferring their gratification for home or some future holiday, these bohos act as if, at any moment, their lives might be changed by some unforeseen event, some chance encounter. They've got their eyes wide open, not fixed on a book in their lap. For a while this can seem charming, a useful rebuke to your schizoid detachment, an interesting challenge to your habits.
Homeless people, wrapped in blankets and haranguing passing office drones for money, sometimes seem to inhabit this all-important 'now', this admirably vulnerable and open existential street moment, until you see through the inverted narcissism of your guilt and tell yourself 'Hang on, these guys see me as nothing more than a walking cash opportunity. They're as reductive in their view of the world as the worst capitalists.'
People like Bjork or Ari Up of The Slits seem better models of pure 'moment' bohemianism, what we might call the 'Be Here Now' school. Ari once shook me up with the lines:
If you don't make eye contact
Walking down the street
You're one of them and you are safe
Sleeping down the street
Articles about Ari, like those about Bjork later, and Bobby Gillespie today (see the February issue of Dazed And Confused for a good example) stressed how a walk down the street with these extra-real, super-streetwise post-punk hippies was never predictable. Their ethnic hair and crazy clothes attracted comments and stares. They had an alternative political agenda that could make you, unthinking office drone that you were, angry, intrigued or perplexed, suddenly unsure of even your most cherished values. They often idealised black culture, had black lovers and made black-style music. Sometimes, like Ari, they ended up in Jamaica, wearing dreadlocks and trailing a gaggle of mulatto kids. Mostly, though, like Bobby Gillespie, they inhabited business class hotels, distinguishing themselves from the other residents by a superior sneer and the occasional daringly 'bohemian' act (in Roger Morton's article, Bobby tries to persuade the rest of Primal Scream to tip a Volkswagen into an Amsterdam canal). And finally, like homeless people, they didn't really want to get to know the real you. They had a product to sell. They wanted your money.
'Be Here Now' versus 'Life Is Elsewhere'
Maybe it's different in Jamaica, but in our culture 'the street' and the 'moment' mean very little. We relive the past and schedule the future, we work to earn money so that we can 'be' at some future moment, abroad, in dreams, or when we retire. We surf the net and build placeless communities based on elective affinities rather than the accidents of geography (where we happen to have been born, who we pass on the street).
The street is just a bunch of people rushing to the next interior. And entry to that interior is restricted to those who have the right connections, the right qualifications, the right money, the right job. They're people who are organised enough to sublimate and to defer gratification, imaginative enough to live, for large amounts of time, in virtual places: non-physical geographies, music, the ether, other times and places, pure fantasy. To them, these states are much more real than any street, with its shabby array of shops, schlepping bozos, and cars.
We Are The Screenwriters Of Our Own Lives
Increasingly, we are the screenwriters of our own lives. We decide who to be, and we work to make other people accept us as that person, the same way a screenwriter struggles to establish a cast of credible characters. We build up our character's face with the aid of orthodontics, prosthetics and cosmetics, we do hairdressing and wardrobe for the character, we make sure the continuity runs okay from day to day.
So maybe that's the low down. Here I am, apparently adding spurious meaning, in the form of music, to a movie, perpetuating stereotypes about 'the street' and the moment that might change your life forever when we all know that audiences will go home after seeing the film to lives which are a lot more subtle and a lot less dramatic than those onscreen.
But in fact it may be that, rather than making art which imitates life, captures 'the essence of now' and understands 'the vibe of the street', what Jamie and I are doing in this studio protected from Berwick Street by three sets of locks and three feet of walls and padding is just making another 'elsewhere'; a dream, an arbitrary template, a false and fantastical image of the world which people may recognise, not from reality, but from their dreams. If they choose to invest their emotions in the film (and that's really what the music is for), maybe people will eventually make all the misinformation up on the screen true. Like 'Friends' fans who claim to watch it because 'those guys goof around just like us' but who actually find themselves copying the actors' hairstyles, mannerisms and speech tropes, maybe the audience will make the lies we're constructing tonight in this studio -- above all the lie that life has some kind of meaningful shape, a shape that sometimes resembles music -- true.