November Music #6

November 2001 – “The Blue Marble” by Sagittarius / “Seventeen Stars” by Montgolfier Brothers

(This is sort of a follow up to November Music #1 which brings the series to a nice easy conclusion.)

Where did the pain start? When did the symptoms begin? Well actually I know precisely where it started. I’d just climbed into the passenger seat of our car after signing up for guitar classes at Brynglas House – it was around 6pm on 11th November 2001. As soon as I’d sat down I said to my wife “Ooh that hurts, I think I’ve trapped a nerve in my back or something”. The pain was sharp and intense and radiated upwards from the base of my spine. We got home quickly and I was in agony. The pain was incredible, like nothing I’d known before. I could not get comfortable at all, I couldn’t sit down, I tried lying down but it was too sore to keep still, so I ended up lying on the stairs trying to contort myself into a shape that would ease the pain. I took some painkillers but they didn’t even touch it.

Then I started being sick. Not just a little bit, but endless sessions of head down the toilet vomiting. I was too scared to move far from the bathroom because every ten minutes or so I’d be back there puking my guts up. Now my wife and I were a bit worried, so we called the emergency doctor who told us to come straight away. I bundled myself back into the car with a bucket on my lap in case I was sick – I’d been sick twelve times in two hours by then. At the doctor’s I was examined – as I vomited again – and was diagnosed as having kidney stones and after a quick phone call I was admitted into the Royal Gwent Hospital do-not-pass-go see-you-there.

Once there my wife settled me into my ward as I was hauled onto a bed, given some anti vomiting drugs (the nausea was an unpleasant side effect, my body’s reaction to the pain) and had a pain killing suppository shoved up my backside and told to drink as much water as I could. Then started a long dark night. There were six of us in the ward and I was without doubt the youngest – everyone else was around 60 to 70 compared to my 32. I would find out that we all had urology kind of problems and regularly heard cries from the other patients throughout the night. I barely got any sleep, the pain was still there even with the pain killers, and I hated being separated from my wife. The next morning I was groggy and tired and in pain so more pain killers were shoved up my arse and I was taken for a scan. At last the cause was found – I had a kidney stone moving through my urethra, or something like that. I’m not good on technical terms. So a slot was found for me to have lithotripsy that afternoon. In the meantime, more pain, more restlessness and no fun. Across the ward was a very old and very confused gentleman who was urinating into a jug (in the bathroom I hasten to add) for the nurses to examine. His urine jug had been ‘refreshed’ about half an hour previously but had not been examined. The gentleman moaned “Oh I feel so thirsty, I’ll have some of this water” and grabbed his urine jug and poured some into his glass, just as I screamed “NO!” and jumped across my bed to his to stop him. I quickly called a nurse and told her to keep a closer eye on him.

That afternoon I had my first sighting of the lithotripsy machine, and my first meeting with Andrew the operator. We’d all meet on a regular basis from then to the present day (next appointment is January 2014) and I think I’ve now had lithotripsy about fifteen times. It’s always a good laugh, litho. I’ll be flat on my back, pumped full of morphine to “ease the pain” and generally grinning like a loon. Andrew is great, very knowledgeable on music (and cricket amongst other subjects) and I always make an exclusive mix CD for each litho session. As I didn’t know what to expect from my first ever litho session, my first mix was calm and laid back – “Albatross”, some Cocteau Twins, Eno, Satie. I didn’t realise the litho would include the sound of a rubber band being ‘ping-ed’ into my back twice a second – so after that the mixes were more upbeat. There are rules I set myself – always an instrumental to start, then a popular song followed by a not-so-popular song alternating to the 40 minute mark at which point the main litho is done, so I’ll add three more instrumentals while Andrew and I will discuss what’s happened and further treatments, then back to alternate popular – unpopular songs. The ultimate accolade is for Andrew to say “I enjoyed that one, can I take it home?”. Anyway, I had my first spot on the litho machine that day, was all ready to start when Andrew did a scan and said “It’s in your bladder, we can’t do anything”. So I was sent back to the ward and told to drink as much water as I could to flush it out. Oh and jumping around before urinating may shake it out.

That evening my wife came to visit me with some presents – the latest issue of Mojo and my CD walkman and “the first six CDs I could find”. Amongst the CDs was “Volume Contrast Brilliance”, the Monochrome Set compilation which I’d bought cheap from Virgin and had never got around to playing in full. It was a cool little collection, some of it I knew already but some of it was new to me and the one song that leapt out was “He’s Frank (Slight Return)”. It was a frantic dash of a song, with guitar parts meshing together like cogs and strange words and a crazed angular guitar solo. And even now years later I hear that song and I’m back in that hospital bed watching the sky darken out of the window.

Eventually after two days and nights on the ward the stone – which I nick-named Keef – popped out of its own accord. It was big, black, very jagged and sharp and there was a fair amount of blood involved on its way out, and once I presented it to the nurse on duty she said “Ooh that looks nasty, did it hurt?”. Er yes. After a check up, a scan and more painkillers to tide me over I was finally discharged. And then I returned to the real world, and the unhappy world of the ONS.

In November Music #1 I talked about how I was taking anti depressants before my eye operation in 2000. By November 2001 I was still on anti depressants, having tried three different tablets, none of which had been any help. All they did was make me worse. Most of 2001 was a doped up blur. I have a few sharp memories of the year – distinct views of certain situations – but the rest of the time is a total blank in my mind. It’s a little scary for me, having such vivid memories of so much in my past and effectively losing a year and a half of memories.

But there had been two major changes in my workplace during the three months I was away before and after my first eye operation. Firstly there was a new boss to my department, a lady who had a fearsome reputation. Whereas my previous boss had tolerated my quirks and depressions, this new boss didn’t feel that way and saw me as a hindrance to the workings of the department. I just rubbed her up the wrong way – metaphorically speaking. And yes it probably didn’t help that when she came into the office one day wearing a white suit that I suggested she complete the outfit with a pith helmet, then started singing “Hunting tigers out in India”. So yes I was a little off the wall at the time and my behaviour wasn’t exactly perfect…In fact far from it. If I was told I shouldn’t do something – like go on the internet or the Discussion Database or whatever – then I would try to find a way to do it, and I always got caught. So I was just providing the new boss with more evidence of my incompetence and stupidity. So that was one change… The other change was that the computer servers had been upgraded in my absence and without my knowledge and a new program I had been developing before my eye operation had not been transferred over, as nobody knew it was there. This would be the final nail in my coffin at the ONS even though I still maintain to this day that it did exist, even if there was little evidence of it at the time. Sigh.

So…November 2001. In late August of that year I had had the cataract removed from my ‘lazy’ eye, and had six weeks to recover, during which I watched 9/11 take place live – I was on a music forum that day when someone mentioned the first plane hitting the WTC and I just dashed to the TV to watch the horror unfold. I returned to work in mid-October – I knew work would be horrible when I went back and I was right. I wasn’t allowed near any computers as I was under investigation regarding this missing program, and spent all my time working in the mail room but getting paid double what the mail room staff were getting. The counsellor I saw in work was trying her best to help but I think I was beyond help by then. I hid in the sick bay swearing and crying and wishing I wasn’t there. My attendance became more random as I took days off just because I didn’t feel I was doing anything worthwhile – all more ammunition to throw at me. Nobody believed I’d been in hospital with kidney stones, everyone thought I’d just thrown a sickie, and I wasn’t surprised really. A day or so after I returned after my hospital episode I had an ‘interview’ with my boss and others which I vaguely remember being an exercise in lies and evasion – I was drugged up on Tramadol and the strongest anti-depressants I could get, I had no idea what I was talking about, they were trying to get me to admit I’d not written the program and somewhere along the line I probably said yes just to get it over with and to get out of that room. However all my memories from that period are so clouded that I could just be misremembering it all. That’s half the problem, I perceive my surroundings differently enough with my ASD – but ASD and drugged to the hilt? There could have been pink elephants floating around the room for all I know.

So happy days all round!

And what was I listening to at the time? Well there was the second album by The Kingsbury Manx, the wonderfully titled “Let you down” which was the total opposite of the title. It was a vast improvement on their debut, which had been half wonderful and half random scrabblings for styles. “Let you down” was all of a piece, they had found their style and they kept to it for 42 wonderful minutes. A perfect autumnal album with some of their finest songs – “Porchlight”, “Simplify”, “Arun”, “Baby you’re a dead man”… Classics. But there were two other albums which were deeply ingrained in my life at the time, and they were both issued by Poptones Records.

Poptones was Alan McGee’s second record label (if you ignore Elevation, his doomed alliance with Warner Brothers in 1987) and during its first year issued a slew of records both old and new. He still had contacts at Sony and was licencing a lot of unreleased or rare sofr pop from the late 60s, artists associated within the Curt Boettcher / Gary Usher circle. In 1999 I had started listening to that kind of music, thanks to raving articles in Mojo on “Present Tense” by Sagittarius and “Begin” by The Millenium. I bought both of those and loved them, then picked up other records by The Association, Spanky and Our Gang and other soft favourites. Poptones issued a number of records in this vein and the one I bought in November ’01 was “The Blue Marble” by Sagittarius. Indeed this is distinctly associated with the kidney stone incident as I bought it on the day I had a check up a week after the stone came out – I remember putting it on my cd walkman on the bus to the hospital and finishing the album on the journey to work afterwards.

“The Blue Marble” slipped between the cracks when it was originally issued in 1969. The label which issued the LP went under not long after release and it disappeared off the radar. It was a Gary Usher project like it’s predecessor but this time there was less collaborative work with Curt Boettcher. Boettcher had taken over “Present Tense”, using it as an outlet for his demos with The Ballroom and as a holding operation for The Millenium but the best songs on “Present Tense” were primarily Usher’s vision – the heavenly rearrangement of an Ivy League song “My world fell down” utilising as many of his session buddies as he could, and the album closer “The truth is not real”, the furthest out the album went and all the better for it. “The Blue Marble” then is Usher at the controls. It’s a beautiful album to listen to, the textures and recording is perfect in a very late 60s way, before the move to 16 track recording made arrangements too cluttered.

The album opens with “In my room” – the song Usher co-wrote with Brian Wilson years before and the first sign of Wilson’s introspection. Here the song is given a sparkling arrangement, lush harmonies and plenty of harpsichord and harp – it’s delicate and soothing. “From you unto us” is less ornate and introduces one of the main instrumental colours of the album – big fat rude buzzing Moog synthesiser notes are liberally smeared over the song. The song itself hops along, throws in a tempo change into waltz time halfway through before returning to the galloping rhythm and is concluded within 120 seconds, ending on a huge descending buzz of Moog bass. Usher sings of being “chased by fears and sorrows, afraid of what tomorrow brings” – sentiments I could understand at the time. “Will you ever see me?” is slower and mirrors a harp with a Moog, and equates everything with universal love – sentiments that were old fashioned by ’69. “Gladys” features more delicate acoustic guitars, and turns into an slowly accelerating bolero for a chorus, single note trumpet fanfares and all. It’s totally un-rock and roll, and really odd. “I sing my song” has a bed of lovely background harmonies, twinkling xylophones and more Moog. I always took the opening line “I sing my song but you won’t sing along” as a coded complaint at the lack of success of both Boettcher and Usher, and the song turns dark as the chorus turns into a minor key, and it feels slightly uneasy – “Our lives are filled with lies for silence holds the truth”. And yet the song is upbeat. “The blue marble” itself is an ecology anthem with a view from space of the Earth, and more moving between major and minor keys increases the tension, but it’s all still placid on the surface. “Lend me a smile” has a more traditional Moog sound (someone’s found out how to patch an envelope into the filter and turned the resonance up, and it now sounds like Denim!). The song itself is good but the final three songs are special.

As soon as I heard “I still can see your face” I recognised it, and yet I have no idea of where from and still don’t. It’s a remarkable song, all the instrumental ideas on the album so far coalesce into something quite perfect – a harpsichord led waltz, Moogs buzzing (less obtrusively now) and now pedal steel guitar. Lyrically it’s about being haunted by someone’s memory but in such a vague way…oh it’s lovely. What’s odd is how it still sounds futuristic, and yet rooted in the past. It also makes me think of the songs on side two of Eno’s “Apollo” album, “Weightless” and “Deep blue day” – and how the astronauts on the Apollo missions had country and western radio’d up to them (and Herb Alpert’s music too – as heard from the extract at the end of “Shrift” by Pacific. Just wanted to get that in, like…). “I see in you” is more unease and I can’t really explain why. It just has curious chord changes, and feels strange. “Cloud talk” is a happier closer, a love song of encouragement for someone to open their eyes. The whole album is consistently good, with strange undertones musically that make it equally enchanting and haunting. That album stayed in my walkman for a long time.

The other Poptones album that soundtracked November ’01 was one of the label’s first releases – “Seventeen Stars” by The Montgolfier Brothers. Well they weren’t brothers and they weren’t called Montgolfier but they made some wonderful music. It was a collaboration between Roger Quigley and Mark Tranmer, who had been making music on their own for a few years by the turn of the century. This was their initial album together, originally issued on Verspertine Records in 1999 and reissued by Poptones the following year. I just didn’t get around to buying it until the end of October ’01. As I’ve said before I’m a great believer in records arriving in your life just when you need them and I needed “Seventeen Stars” just at that point.

If you can imagine Vini Reilly messing around with a General MIDI keyboard and sequencer, then playing guitar over the top – that should give you an idea of what the music on “Seventeen Stars” sounds like. There’s a Gallic tone to some of the songs, I can’t quite put my finger on it not knowing too much French music, I won’t embarrass myself saying it’s like something when I don’t know what that something is. But there is an unconventionality to the music, it takes unexpected turns, it’s definitely not three chord ramalama. If the album has any antecedants (ooh, get me with the posh words) it would be “Mad dumb scared and gorgeous” by Because, an album made by Jim Irvin – former member of Furniture and future editor of Mojo. It has a similar set of sounds, a similar aesthetic lyrically too.

“Time spent passing” is a simple guitar instrumental with peculiar soundtrack sounds behind it, too far back to be distinct but intriguing. It could be a pastoral forerunner of Ghost Box. “Even if my mind can’t tell you” circles around peculiar chord changes while Quigley sings in a Mancunian speak-sing song voice (which makes me think of Guy Garvey at his most intimate) of troubled relationship and trying to start again. “Pro celebrity hanging around” was played on the radio when the LP was issued, a short vignette of love – worries waiting for someone all banished by their arrival. Quite lovely. “Four days” is as gorgeous and tranquil as any Durutti Column instrumental, all echoing guitar arpeggios and a delightful keyboard melody over it. “Seventeen Stars” is a sleepy description of a caravan holiday – and again I’m reminded of “Song”, the second and final album by It’s Immaterial, the words painting pictures of miniature lives over repetitive music. “Low tide” is ominous – a drone, keyboards playing locking parts, but jarring against each other. For some reason this piece is touching nerves, but there’s no words. I haven’t played this album for a long long time and memories and feelings are stirring. “In walks a ghost” is another vignette of a relationship, this time in peril it seems. It’s almost uncomfortable to listen to. And now I’m thinking of “Euphoria” by Insides, Kirsty Yates’ lyrics, too close to the bone. “Une chanson du crepescule” is a very apt title, and it almost lighthearted in the manner of the music and now I’m thinking of Momus’ “Timelord” album for some reason. Then “Between two points” begins.

Four chords circle slowly, guitars are gently stroked, and hushed drums tick along, and more instruments are added as the song slowly progresses. And the words… Jesus these words are raw. “Just let them walk all over you, laugh through the punches and the pain. Let the lifeblood drain away from you, they’re right – you’re wrong”. And it’s so calm in its progress, so resigned to its fate, so numbed by the slings and arrows, it bloody well hurts, it bloody well hurts. I sometimes wonder how the world keeps on turning. “Your guardian angel gives up the ghost”. Quite. “Fin” is a graceful guitar instrumental to close the album.

And as the album ends, so does November. The sky is dark with ominous clouds. The cheer and joy and peace and goodwill of Christmas is on its way, but that seems like a long time in the distance yet. And the kidney stones – well they’d be around for a long time to come, and are still there now. I’ve had two more periods of hospitalisation with passing stones, numerous scans and lithotripsy, and two hospital stays flushing out my kidneys (and a stent in my urethra which is now damaged from passing stones) just before Christmas two years ago. And there’s a stone so big in my left kidney that it’s almost impossible to remove – it’s stuck in a nasty position which is impossible for keyhole surgery – without cutting the kidney open. Nice. As I wrote on my Facebook page as I was about to have my second op in 2011 – “Here I sit so patiently waiting to find out what price you have to pay to get out of going through all these things twice.”

Or alternately, what I wrote on my FB page as I came round after the first op in 2011 – “OUCH!”

Next time – well there should be two more pieces before Christmas, one I promised before November and the other is more personal history – Christmas ’83 to February ’84. Then I’ll take a break for a little while. I hope you’ve enjoyed November as much as I have.

This entry is dedicated to the memory of George Harrison, who passed away on this day in 2001. I would like to say I remember it well but I don’t.

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