Saturday, November 06, 2004

Death to Everyone: in memory of John Peel

For one month and twenty years, Peel kept me company. In the autumn of 1984, I first listened to his programme. I was fortunate enough to catch Microdisney. And I remember being impressed by a Moroccan band called Dissidenten. From then, I rarely missed a show.

In March 1985, there was a session by The Nightingales, it included a song called How to Age. I can't recall much of the song now except that it meant a lot to me; for the atmosphere and emotion expressed. It was the middle of the Thatcher years and I was unemployed, without much of a life to come.

At the same time, I heard Hüsker Dü, the early Crime & the City Solution and Yeah Yeah Noh. But he didn't just play dark European music. He introduced me to the Bhundu Boys and the Four Brothers, both from Zimbabwe. It seems like a long time ago and, now, listening to the old favourites, my skin bristles and I am uncomfortably warm. It is not nostalgia. I am more interested, like Peel, in hearing new music – new music that will have a similar impact on me. Yet listening to the old music, such as Hupenyu Wangu (from the Bhundu Boy's LP Shabini), I realise such joy is not far from this sense of incommensurable loss. Mere repetition doesn't bring joy – it is the implicit knowledge of it being finite that makes it so good. This is why Peel was always looking for new music; it enabled the old to become new again.

I had imagined he would die when I'd long given up listening to his show, and perhaps long after he'd stopped broadcasting. I knew it was not a world I particularly want to live in. A week after he died, that feeling was sharpened.

I have always remembered the times when he tried to say something about a death or a tragedy. Of the Heysel Stadium disaster of 1985, he said very little. He was in the stadium that night supporting Liverpool. At the start of the first show on his return, he said that, as a child, he could never understand why his father never spoke about his experiences in North Africa during the war. Now, he said, he understood. He then played Tupelo by John Lee Hooker. The song was breathtaking. I'd not heard it before. He didn't have to say any more.

Four years later, after the Hillsborough disaster, he opened the microphone and began to speak. He said he didn't know it was possible to feel such grief for people one didn't know. He then broke down and cried until music faded in.

The music always seemed to resonate with Peel's voice either side of it. I am glad I didn't try to erase it from my recordings of the show. One night in 1988, he said he had a new LP by Everything But the Girl, a band whose members he had championed years before. He said he hadn't heard the record but was attracted to the title of one song – The Night I Heard Caruso Sing - and decided to play it there and then. It turned out to be a dark affair about the threat of nuclear war and the decision about whether to have children or not:
Then someone sat me down last night and I heard Caruso sing!
He's almost as good as Presley, and if I only do one thing
I'll sing songs to my father, I'll sing songs to my child.
It's time to hold your loved ones while the chains are loosed
And the world runs wild
As the last note faded, Peel said:
I do know exactly how they feel. There are times when you're feeling good, even cheerful, when you go as far as that [meaning the song's epiphany]. But you think to yourself, which I do, at this very moment, someone somewhere on the planet is being tortured to death; and it's happening right now. And that tends to blunt my enjoyment of almost everything.
His voice wavered with awkward sincerity over the hyperlinked words. He clearly meant it. But, I wonder, how much of that enjoyment depended on this sensibility? When I listen to music, my enjoyment, such as it is, includes the terrible knowledge that it is over. This is Peel's gift.
every terrible thing
is a relief
even months on end
buried in grief
are easy light times
which have to end
with the coming
of your death friend.

death to everyone
is gonna come
and it makes hosing
much more fun


  1. Anonymous1:39 pm

    I know what you mean about 'How To Age'. Apart from anything else it's a remarkable song for a 24-year-old to have written. Anyhow, the good news is that it's available on CD - check out the 'Pissed and Potless' compilation, available on Cherry Red. I think the version you mentioned is a later one, from the 'In The Good Old Country Way' album , which is due out on CD later this year I believe.

  2. Anonymous3:35 pm

    What is 'hosing'?



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