X and I sit in my room and nod with tiredness, look around at the walls, at each other, at nothing. We’ve reached the point where only black American roots music will help us, I tell him, sitting up. Sit still and listen for once, I tell him. We sit and sip, smoke and sway as I put on song after song, from field hollering to prison chants to call-and-response preaching. Pure music, I tell him, the most moving music ever made, the voice of the body in deep pain and joy, in pleasure and despair. Country blues played on homemade instruments in raw recordings. A capella gospel. Shouting blues, soft plaintive blues, piercing harmonica blues. We go back and forth, listening to various versions of Cocaine Blues and Stack-O-Lee. I put on Appalachian songs and bluegrass, but return to black music. Black music conquers all, I tell X, it’s as powerful as a bottle of whiskey, if this doesn’t help us nothing will. I put on Leadbelly, Robert Johnson and Lightnin’ Hopkins. I put on the blind bluesmen, the ones who couldn’t work and learned to play the blues instead, the few who got recorded, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie Johnson, Gary Davis and the great Blind Willie McTell, and here we take a detour to Dylan’s homage song and his two great cover albums from the 90s as I read the liner notes of World Gone Wrong aloud to X, neither of us understanding them. We go from The Mississippi Sheiks to Skip James to Tommy Johnson, the tortured Robert Pete Williams, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. We go from Son House to Big Bill Broonzy to Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and Willie Brown and back again, then to Ali Farka Touré who gives us a glimpse of where it all came from – tomorrow it’s African music, I say, tomorrow we’ll sit here all day and listen to African music… Then back to Robert Johnson, the greatest of them all, the one who transcended the genre once and for all, the one with the purest cry, and we feel buoyed and even allow ourselves a smile. What was it about the Delta? I ask X. Was it the heat, the swamps, the suffering?
Ixion, Tantalus, Sisyphus… we need to fill up our empty heads, I tell X, we need to feel alive. How? Drink, he says. Get out of bed, let’s go get a few bottles.
Nothing, void, inertia bordering on despair. Grey skies, grey streets, grey walls. You nowhere to be seen, nowhere to be heard. I thank God for the pills and the wine that put that border in place, lie down and wait for sleep in the afternoon. It doesn’t come, nothing comes, the day ends all over. Same old tedium, same old tedious mystery: the silence that isn’t silence, the voice I wait for that speaks somewhere but fails to come and when it comes is only ever to come. But not even that today, hardly even waiting. Nothing, inertia. Wine, pills, sleep, eventually.
It’s wanting things that gets us in trouble, X tells me, it’s when you start wanting things that you start being watched and followed, that’s when they start making ready for you. Then the void opens up under you. Then we have to stop wanting things, I say. Exactly, he says, but how do we do that? What am I saying, I say, you’re off your fucking nut, I can want what I want. Go ahead, he says, see what happens.
Fate, X mutters, it was fate that brought us together. Whether it happened one way or another doesn’t matter to them, they don’t care what we think. It brought us together for bad and for worse, but they don’t care how bad or worse we think it is, it might be good for all we know. For all you know, I say, don’t lump me in with you. Don’t lump me in with you then, he says.
Oppression is always there, I tell X, the No is always there, we’ve established that. What we need is recognition. But by whom? You don’t want recognition, he tells me. it just makes it worse, trust me. Remember how they recognised me? It’s best not to know, not to listen, not to be listened to. Just keep babbling to no one in particular or you’ll get in trouble. They’ll see you like they saw me, and soon they’ll make themselves known, you might even see them, like I did, and then all hell will break loose. You don’t know shit, do you? he says. You won’t know the difference between recognition and oppression. They’ll come after you like they’re coming after me and you’ll wish you never stuck your head out in the first place. It’s like those lights that come on in the night when you walk onto someone’s property, he says. You’ll be lit up and have to scutter back into the dark only you won’t be able to because the light will follow you.
I address you and my speech is immediately broken apart by your absence, or my failure to listen to your response. Something breaks apart my speech, but what breaks in? Nothing but the fact that my speech is broken apart. Yet I continue to name you, shamelessly, keep announcing you, surprised that I even can, and I give you the credit in my hopeless hope. You learn more by talking than by listening, says X, and he’s half right, since you unlearn more by talking, by being called forward in your confusion as you talk.
Sleepless again, both X and I. We go outside to smoke and look at the sky. The ancients believed the stars were holes through which the light of the beyond shone, I tell him. We’re holes through which nothing shines, he tells me.
Posted in Sleep, Writing, X