we sing in the darkness we open our eyes (open up)

Coming back from the Isle of Wight, I listened to my iPod and heard in quick succession three tracks that have enormous significance in my life.

When I was about 15 or 16, I used to spend a lot of time at my hippy aunt and uncle’s out in the country. They were relaxed and messy and ate loads of junk food, read fantasy novels and had cool records by Santana and Curved Air. I would spend whole summers with them. One of the albums I carefully taped onto AGFA cassettes was the Best of Cream.

In the middle of ‘Badge’ by Cream there’s a guitar break that spirals down out of silence. A simultaneously perfect but human sound. I remember listening to that song on my Sony Walkman, sitting in the front room of my parent’s house, in a old leather wing-backed chair that belonged to my grandfather. And those few seconds of guitar sound were like a portal into another, better world.

It was a world of parties, of sexual freedom, of drugs perhaps but most importantly of friends. Warm summery friendship lived in those guitar notes and it was the golden sound of my future. In all the subsequent years of university at Cambridge or wild clubbing in Berlin I never experienced a party or a friendship as perfect as those notes. Nor I suspect was I meant to.

Next, as I cycled along the Bayswater Road, was Talking Head’s ‘Making Flippy Floppy’ off their Speaking in Tongues album.

I was a Talking Heads fanatic as a teenager. I remember going to a rather drunken all-night house party at Steven McRobbie’s house in Alverstoke with loads of schoolfriends and spending a large chunk of the evening watching MTV’s 100 greatest videos. We didn’t have MTV at home so it was a new world to me. And when David Byrne walked on stage in his sneakers to play Psycho Killer at the beginning of their movie, Stop Making Sense, I thought it was the coolest, most beautifully weird thing in the world.

The next day, at great expense, I went out and bought Little Creatures and Stop Making Sense and listened to them on a loop for a month. They became totemic – in the way teenage music does – of a freedom, an identity, a love.

I would cycle the 4 miles to school each day with Talking Heads (again on blue AGFA tapes) in my Walkman. I remember exactly walking across the carpark at Lee, towards the red bitumen promenade and the gulls and ravens down on the shingle, listening to Making Flippy Floppy and probably feeling individually me for the first time.

David Byrne was so odd and ambiguous he was the natural role model for a gay man that didn’t want to conform but couldn’t even contemplate coming out. Instead, the Heads allowed me to be oddball, quirky but still cool. It was the sylistic version of being gay. All form, no content.

For years, I went off Talking Heads for that reason, that they seemed rather too cool. Chilled infact. But listening last night, I was admiring the pristine sharpness of the instrumentation, the chiselled brilliance of Byrne’s nonsense wisdom and that weirdly chthonic synth break after he snaps: ‘Open up.’

Finally, as I approached home, there was the first movement of Duruflé’s Requiem.

I remember listening to this on an idyllic summer’s day spent with gilded university friends in an orchard in Northamptonshire – but that’s not why it has significance in my life. Rather it is the kind of work it is.

All through my childhood I sang in a church choir. I was the full-on cherubic choirboy with ruff, surplice and cassock. It was my full immersion, my baptism in the world of music: anthems, psalms, nunc dimitti, semibreves, quavers, double diapasons and the vox celesta. I became musical and spiritual inside an Anglican haze of evensongs, Easter vigils and annual performances of Fauré’s Requiem.
I also became enchanted by all the scripture of music: the scores, the staves, the clefs and key signatures. I loved the notes written on the page and would hoard musical manuscript paper so I could fill it up with elaborate musical calligraphy.

I filled dozens of ring-bound manuscript books with complex (but nonmusical) openings to symphonies, cantatas and requiem masses. They’d involve huge forces and never last more than a few pages. Sometimes only a few bars.

One day, my grandmother, a ferociously precise piano teacher by profession, took a look at all these manuscripts and (with the best intention) tried to play them. But they weren’t written to be played they were graphical transciptions of these great swells of sound in my head or, just as often, artistic arrangements of quavers and sharps and flats on the stave.

Poor Gran, she was definitely trying to help, but instead of sitting me down and perhaps encouraging my vision and maybe tightening up my (nonexistant) notation skills, she had inadvertently killed any joy I had in it, by sitting behind me on the piano stool and mercilessly playing the made-up notes I had written.

Recently, after all my creative insight from Brazil, I was thinking about this. Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way encourages an investigation in to who may have blueprinted the ‘censoring’ voice in our heads that stop us being creative. And – quite against her will – I realised that my very musical Granmother may have inadvertently stopped me being a composer at a young age.

No reason why I shouldn’t be one now, 30 years on, I suppose. During the sponsored walk across the spring green Isle of Wight we decided to form a chamber choir. Perhaps I could pen us an anthem or two to sing along the way. Perhaps using Byrne lyrics:

There are no big secrets
Don’t believe what you read
We have great big bodies
We got great big heads
Run-a-run-a-run it all together
Check it out – still don’t make no sense
Makin’ flippy floppy
Tryin to do my best
Lock the door
We kill the beast
Kill it


  1. Mike

    May 16, 2006 at 3:59 am

    The thing you describe with your grandmother is known as an “initiating experience.” They happen when we are young and make such an impression on us that they stay around and effect all kinds of things that happen in our heads and around us. It’s exactly what you described happening with you and your grandmother.

    You mention, “…an investigation in to who may have blueprinted the ‘censoring’ voice in our headsthat stop us being creative.”The answer: you did. It’s the story you made up about what happened. When actually, the only thing that happened is your grandmother merely played the notes you put down on the paper. She didn’t thwart you. You may have said to yourself, “Boy, that’s sounds awful.” or “People are always going to judge what I do.” Only you can say what the story you made up is.

    The sad thing is that we carry these stories around in our heads and they affect a lot of things we do. The great thing is, once you identify them, you can avoid falling into a racket you’ve made up about it.

    By the way, I wish you would write more on your blog. Your writing is very lyrical. Oops, was that a musical term I just used? I’m being serious. Your writing is very beautiful in its essence and in the way you put words together. Do more of it, please.


  2. Valerie

    May 16, 2006 at 5:43 pm

    When I hit the magic 50 I decided that if I didn’t fly
    now I wasn’t going any where. I still have a long way
    to go but I care less about peoples narrowing opinions and
    more about what I want to see, do and accomplish.
    I’ve always loved music and singing. But one day when I was
    about 15, I was singing around the house and my mother said
    to me ( not being intentional unkind but just commenting)
    ” Too bad God didn’t give you a good voice.” Whatever she
    meant it was like a bolt hitting me. I loved to sing and
    was very into Child Ballads and folk music. It certainly
    bruised my ego and from then I didn’t sing for people only
    for myself. But into adulthood, I said, I like to sing and
    I gonna do it, thus came Community Theatre and even the
    lead role of Bloody Mary in South Pacific. So at different
    levels we can do what we love and still feel accomplished.
    Move forward Alistair, Life is for living.

  3. Valerie

    May 16, 2006 at 7:52 pm

    Ahhhhh Cream the first time around.

  4. Tim

    May 16, 2006 at 11:44 pm

    I suppose it might not be possible to get
    through childhood without someone crushing
    your creative flowers. My experience first grade,
    after school, singing with nuns around a piano. One
    of them asked if I could sing “In Far Away Places”.
    It just so happened I knew “In Far Away Places” so I
    started singing. She stopped me after the first line,
    and said “No, I mean why don’t you go sing in some far
    away place.” Howls of Derisive Laughter, Bruce!!

    On a lighter note, it’s wonderful to have you back
    blogging again,Alistair. Love, Tim

  5. dougie

    May 17, 2006 at 12:02 pm

    I think the section when you talk about the significance of music in exploring identities in your youth is something universal to all of us (In fact this makes up a large part of my PhD thesis). The way you have described a returning to Talking Heads and the experience of nostalgia is also extremely pertinent. I had a free tape from Angel Delight (1987) that I played incessantly, now whenever I hear any of the tracks from it I have an overwhelming physiological (nostalgic) reaction. It’s amazing how music has the power to effect immediate thoughts, bodily processes, and perspectives on our lives and the worrld around us. It becomes even more amazing when we take time to focus on all this. I’m glad you have Alistair and I would encourage everyone else to also. Cheers x

  6. Valerie

    May 17, 2006 at 3:15 pm

    I feel for you Tim. I work with a Youth Theatre group and
    believe me we get children of ALL variying talents. But
    my job as an adult and a mentor is to encourage and inspire
    move them forward to represent themselves to their peers
    other adults. Its amazing how many come in with no talent
    or minimum and to watch them blossom. We had one girl who
    came in and couldn’t sing a note but is now a senior in
    high school and is getting ready to tour with Up With
    People. So you out there let’s strive for constructive
    criticism and encouragment for our youth they are our

  7. brendan

    May 17, 2006 at 11:06 pm

    everyone please go back and read what mike said.

  8. Valerie

    May 19, 2006 at 2:54 pm

    Whether we do it to ourselves or we let others affect us
    it is still crippling and until we let it go it hard to
    move forward.

  9. Allan

    May 21, 2006 at 2:07 am

    A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.
    When you find the way others will find you.
    Passing by on the road they will be drawn to your door.
    The way that cannot be heard will be echoed in your voice.
    The way that cannot be seen will be reflected in your eyes.

  10. Tim

    May 21, 2006 at 2:18 am

    My question is why are there so few “positive” initiating
    experiences? Although I can remember receiving encouragement,
    none of those experiences have the clarity that the
    critical or rejecting ones do. Is the sensitivity that
    helps a person become artistic the trait that leaves
    them vulnerable to negative “initiating experiences”?

  11. mike/

    May 21, 2006 at 5:09 am

    “My question is why are there so few ‘positive’ initiating experiences? Although I can remember receiving encouragement, none of those experiences have the clarity that the critical or rejecting ones do. Is the sensitivity that helps a person become artistic the trait that leaves them vulnerable to negative ‘initiating experiences’?” [NOTE: They are also know as “originating” expereinces.]

    Great question. There is nothing “negative” OR “positive” about originating expereinces. They are things that just “happened.” WE make up a story about what happened as a way of coping, dealing with, explaining, etc. Please, let me share my most important originating experience as illustration.

    When I was about four years old, my father promised to take me someplace special. I always told myself it was the zoo, but I really don’t remember if it was. I was all dressed up as cute as any four-year old. Instead of taking me to the zoo, he took me to a bar so he could drink. [He was an alcoholic.]

    He tried to cajole me with one of my favorite things in the world – red pisachios. He probably told me we were going to go later or at another time, but we didn’t. The story I made up about this episode was that “Nobody listens to me, so why should I bother, and that he didn’t love me.”

    My entire life, until I identified this “story,” was painted by the story I made up.

    When the only thing that happened is he took me to a bar. Nothing else. The act of taking me to a bar had nothing to do with his listening to me. It had to do with his need to have a drink. I internalized it as he didn’t listen to me and he didn’t love me.

    How did this effect my life? My father and I did not have a close relationship until I moved out of the house away from him; I have a real problem with trusting, especially men; no matter what I tell someone, I don’t think that they are going to listen to me, even before I’ve said it; I went overboard in relationships because I always needed to be sure that my partners would pay attention to me, thus pushing them away; and, worst of all, to this day I will not eat red pistachios!

    I was finally able to identify the originating experience, discover the story I had made up about it, and determine how it affected my life. It took a life coach to actually push me to see it by doing what my father did to me until I screamed, “You’re not listening to me you f*@^er!” Whereupon, he asked, “You’ve been a spoiled four-year old brat all your life because you didn’t think your father took you to the zoo? He took you to a bar for whatever reason he had for himself. You had nothing to do with his decision.”

    As to why happenings like this we give a negative connotation, I would venture a guess that as human beings we tend to put more merit into things we perceive as “negative or bad” before other happenings because they make a greater impression on us and we see them as more of a threat.

    As to how my life is different having identified all of this? I really could care less if anyone listens to me or not. It’s not really important. What is important is that I say it. What is important is that I trust others more. What is important is that I realize that others do pay attention to me because I’m me. What is important is that I discovered that natural pistachios are much better tasting than the red ones.

    I apologize for this post being so long, but 1) I needed to give an illustration about originating experiences and 2) it is important that I say it whether you listen to me or not.

    Thanks for listening…

  12. Michael

    May 22, 2006 at 6:16 am

    You are truly a talented individual Alistair and I’ve truly enjoyed reading your blogs. You inspire so many more of us than you will ever know.

  13. cortes alexander

    May 24, 2006 at 8:20 pm

    Don’t know how I found you, but I’ve not enjoyed such musings in forever. Thank you for your insight & your sensitivity. Peace, Cortés

  14. pol-loves

    May 26, 2006 at 3:33 am

    New to your blog, but happy to have found it. Your creativity and authentic personality are very well appreciated. – from a Canadian fan.

  15. Paul

    June 11, 2006 at 10:42 am

    I was very happy to find my way to your site, Alistair.
    I have been a fan of the episodes of “Cash” being played on BBC
    America, and I wondered if you might have been gay. I googled, and was so
    pleased to find your info. Since then, I have been keeping up with your
    travels, musings, and such, as a regular reader of your blog posts. I agree with
    Mike’s previous post that your thoughts are so well written and I, too, am glad to see you writing more.
    As far as Cream and Talking Heads go, I had my own defining moments
    with both of those groups, in my teens. I was pleasantly reminded of where I was
    and how both groups affected me then, each in different parts of my personality and tastes. “Heads” was, in effect, a reflection of the hope I had for a gay, fun party life…feeling cool and part of a new lifestyle. The group was first formed, if I remember correctly, when Byrne was a student at Rhode Island School of Design, in my hometown,
    when I was 17. I was just coming out then, and jesus, they were cool.
    Cream, on the other hand, was a reflection of my more introspective and serious side. (At 15) The first girl I came out to, and it was incredibly frightening, was Paula, a girl 4 years older, and a mentor of mine. Everything she thought of me, and how I acted, was most important to me. (I even styled my penmanship after hers!) Her suggestion that I check out the likes of Cream, Cat Stevens, Melanie Safka, Laura Nyro, Ten Years After, King Crimson, and others, was with hopes that I would develop a rounded sense of music, and deepen my sense of self.
    I pride myself today as having very eclectic tastes in music, loving most genres. Maybe it’s because I was, as a gay teen, a well trained chameleon, changing color with the situation I was in at the moment, exploring a constant need to find where I really fit in. Music has always been a salvation for me, easing my fears, pulling out emotion, and letting me find release. I have always secretly judged others, in part, by their music collections, and I believe I have been more accepting of others in life, through music.
    Thanks for letting me reply to your posts, and leave some of my thoughts.
    That’s enough from my end of town for now, here in Providence, R.I.
    Best wishes to you in all your endeavors.

  16. Jonathan

    June 30, 2006 at 7:44 pm

    To this day, no one moves me musically quite like Eric Clapton though he hasn’t delivered the goods for me for a long time now. He must be happy in his own life 🙂 so I listen to Gary Moore for the fretwork. Music has been of massive importance to me and on any given day, I can run the gamut from World Rhythms to Blues to Folk to Cajun to Classical to Prog Rock to Jazz to Electronica to Singer/Songwriter stuff, the list goes on. The album Night Song by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan takes me off into a very special place, where ‘me’ and the music become one, I become totally immersed in. Same with the album Hats by The Blue Nile. Without music, I honestly don’t know where I’d be, it’s helped me through so much in life. Nice blog Alastair.

  17. Robin

    July 14, 2006 at 1:31 pm

    That exquisite guitar break on ‘Badge’ is played by George Harrison btw…

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