After Mason: Memories of The Beggar
Simon Comber writes about the ups and downs of the creative process, the paradox of hope, and how poets R. A. K. Mason and Robin Hyde helped inspire his new album.
The Herriot Row album Lesser Stars is out now on Carpathian Records and Arcade Recordings. Listen to the album here. Herriot Row is on tour in New Zealand throughout September – dates and tickets at Under The Radar.
A while back I wrote a song called ‘The Beggar.’ A few years ago now actually, which makes it hard to be certain I’m being truthful when I tell you about writing it. It’s not that I’m making excuses or being coy. It’s just that the completion of a song tends to erase all the unexpected steps you took along the way. If you’re not taking notes as you go, you turn around and the trail has vanished. That’s why a song can feel cut from its own cloth even though it never is, and why musicians asked about the artistic process, even card carrying indie rock atheists, will often find themselves falling back on religious sentiments they would otherwise balk at: ‘It wasn’t me. I was just a vessel. The best songs write themselves you know.’ That said, I do have some memories surrounding the writing and recording of ‘The Beggar.’
I’d woken up late in my flat in Kingsland, Auckland City. Midsummer sun was pouring through the wall-sized windows of the lounge, and the low ceiling was trapping the heat in. Opening the door to the lounge felt like entering a beach house left to itself for half a summer. After breakfast I’d seated myself at the green and white formica dining table, and placed a single piece of paper over the fading coffee cup rings. Six months, or even a year, isn’t the longest time to take in writing a song lyric, but it’s a long time to go missing one line. I’d decided that today I was going to wait it out. So that is what I did. I didn’t scrawl away hoping for some first-thought-best-thought kind of breakthrough. I just sat and waited with this piece of paper, which I suppose I’d placed in front of me more as a statement of intent than a writing parchment.
A writer whose work I admire, the late Roberto Bolano, once said that ‘the word writing is the exact opposite of the word waiting.’ Yet here I was – waiting. The idea was that in simply turning up to my station and being patient, my consciousness would suffer a kind of birthing of the missing line. Writing was for amateurs and heathens.
An hour later I’d begun sort of murmur-groaning with boredom and frustration, wiping beads of sweat off my brow as the lounge began to swelter, occasionally laughing to myself about the ridiculousness of my new conceit. I’d get up and make another cup of coffee, sit back down and wait. I’d get up and unlock the big double doors that opened out onto the backyard, secure them to the side of the house, and sit back down. And wait. Nothing.
Every time the flame goes out he doubles back, relights the candle, and starts his inscrutable quest all over again. When he finally reaches the other side, he collapses with what I take to be a spiritual exhaustion... And that’s how I finally got the line I needed.
At some point I was so restless that I got up and started washing the flats accumulated morning dishes. I was aggressively scrubbing a coffee cup when I suddenly had a scene from Tarkovski’s film Nostalghia pass through my mind. I know right? But it’s important not to let the fear of looking pretentious get in the way of the truth. There is a scene in Nostalghia where the main character tries to carry a lit candle from one end of an empty outdoor spa to the other without letting the flame extinguish. Every time the flame goes out he doubles back, relights the candle, and starts his inscrutable quest all over again. When he finally reaches the other side, he collapses with what I take to be a spiritual exhaustion, as if finally able to lay down a burden – as if that small candle, or perhaps its tiny flame, was a great weight to bear. And that’s how I finally got the line I needed.
I carry my burden like a candle
When you put two things together that don’t have an obvious connection, whose comparison doesn’t have a precedent that’s been reinforced to the point of becoming a trope, there is this symbolic breathing space that arises in the cognitive distance between them. I suppose that’s what poetry is for me – this alternative breathing space – and I can see in retrospect that the songs I become obsessed with, the ones that tricked me into wanting to write songs myself, are the ones that exist in this space.
I carry my burden like a candle
I liked this simile because it seemed to breathe. It felt fresh and it had a phonetic flow that was right for my song. I also liked it because trying to walk and keep a small candle lit at the same time seems like a good way to describe writing songs whilst doing all the other things you have to do to get by, and that’s one thing I had on my mind when I started writing ‘The Beggar.’
There is a certain breed of tunesmith who likes to think they could have been a poet in a previous life. These are the earnest ones who don’t actually talk about their favourite songwriters. They talk about their favourite lyricists. These are the ones who long to get compared to Cohen but are more likely to get parodied by the Coen Brothers. Sometime in the early thousands I wrote to one of my favourite lyricists, John Darnielle from the Mountain Goats, and asked him who his favourites were. I adored the way the words in his songs often seemed to overlap and inform each other across the space of a record, and without feeling the need to venture into ‘concept album’ territory. I assumed it was on purpose. Yet it was so subtle, and his recordings were so raw and spontaneous, that albums as rich with poetic energy as Full Force Galesburg and The Coroners Gambit felt like life’s ineffable synchronicities captured on cassette tape. I wondered whom else I might learn from. Darnielle was still a few albums away from being anointed ‘America’s best non-hip-hop lyricist,’ and he wrote back a generous reply telling me to check out Lifter Puller, Destroyer and especially a guy called John Vanderslice. ‘I should make the disclaimer that we are friends, but he is a genius,’ Darnielle assured me.
‘I should make the disclaimer that we are friends, but he is a genius,’ Darnielle assured me.
I got on the Internet and ordered the latest albums from all of them. The one that really killed me was Vanderslice’s Time Travel Is Lonely. I mean, right there in the title, before you’d even pressed play on the compact disc player – that breathing space. And what the dude got away with was criminal. William Blake and Robert Lowell poems set to pop music? Multiple ‘interludes’? Liner notes extending and elaborating on the overarching narrative implied throughout this unabashed concept album? All potentially vomit inducing. Vanderslice avoided aesthetic disaster by not bothering to try and tie the artful lyrical strands neatly, and by enfolding them in playful, loose performances that gave the distinct impression the people in the studio were having far too much fun to take anything too seriously.
I was in the midst of writing songs for what would become Pre-Pill Love, my first solo record under my own name. The track I had on repeat each morning when I woke up to face my unfinished record was Vanderslice’s ‘Keep the Dream Alive,’ an irresistible three-chord song that isn’t the sentimental power ballad the title might suggest. It’s a fragmented and indeed dream-like narrative, with an opening line that pokes fun at the notion of counting in a tempo (“One, two, three, five”), and a shamelessly out of time arpeggiating synth pattern that kicks in during the choruses. Mostly sung from the point of view of a ghostly observer, ‘Keep the Dream Alive’ follows the wanderings of a Blakean little boy lost, who seems to have woken up, whether in or outside a dream, to find that he has inextricably strayed from his campsite and fellow campers. The verses are punctuated by the harmonized repetition of the entreaty that is the song’s title, and the response of an infectious stack of distorted trumpets.
Upon reaching the campsite, the boy finds that his fellow campers have all deserted him. Skinned raccoons hang from a line as a reminder of the opportunities that can pass you buy when you stray off track. The fellow campers have left wearing their badges of productive honour – their coonskin caps. The campfire, that vital source of both warmth and bearings in the dark, has almost extinguished. In the lead up to the last chorus, a choir of straining voices sings the line, “He gathered wood and started his own fire” before the song surges back into the refrain – a final plea to “keep the dream alive” – and then fades out.
That last chorus is one of the most uplifting moments in my record collection, and at the time it was the secret call to self-determination I needed to be convinced that I wasn’t kidding myself. From that point on I bought every album Vanderslice made, and they were all great. At some point I noticed he’d also started producing albums for the Mountain Goats, most notably their emotional and commercial breakthrough The Sunset Tree. I thought of the two Johns as a dream team.
In the Research Centre at the Auckland Central Library where I used to work there is a bronze bust of the New Zealand poet R. A. K. Mason. He couldn’t have known that his carefully sculpted likeness would be preserved when he lamented in verse that he was one of those artists ‘who are doomed to raise up no monuments to outlast brass.’ Nor could Mason have known, as he stood on the edge of the Queens Wharf pier and hurled 200 unsold copies of his book The Beggar into the Waitemata Harbour, that he’d come to be anthologized, and described by Allen Curnow as New Zealand’s ‘first wholly original, unmistakably gifted poet.’
I don’t remember how I first came across this local literary myth, but I do remember not wanting to empathise. The story of a jaded artist abandoning their destiny in a final act of hopelessness chimed all too uncomfortably with a sense of foreboding I sometimes found hard to shake – that what I’d long considered my own artistic destiny would at some point abandon me. I was simultaneously drawn to this story and somehow anxious about its existence. I was a sucker for a good tortured artist myth, and was there not something humble about dumping your hard-won poetic insights into the ocean? It was hard not to admire what looked like the artistic acceptance that everything was headed that way in the end. Yet I also got a sense of sour grapes, and the blooming of a terminal bitterness, at receiving so little recognition for having ‘pressed a rare vintage in a land of rough red,’ as Bob Orr put it in his homage to Mason.
The first poem I read from The Beggar was the title poem. It’s bookended by flippant verses that ooze a mocking resentment of the impoverished, and the barrier they create between the enjoyment of one’s privilege and oneself.
Curse the beggar in the street
that he has less joy than I . . .
Curse him for his shrivelled feet
The poem is saved from being a mere acknowledgement of human crassness by the verses between these bookends. There is a dissonance created by the way the pastoral setting of the poem – the ‘lonely dale’ – and the presence of the beggar on its outskirts, shown by his ‘sobs,’ are both evoked with a similar Latinate tenderness:
It is he whose threne sobs thin
All along this lonely dale . . .
as for joy we steer for green
fields where frail pools sleeping are
For a moment it’s as if the beggar and the green fields are the equally quaint details of a Wordsworthian imitation, and in this ‘The Beggar’ risks the ultimate condescension. It’s the poem’s return to crudity and cursing that in turn redeems this fleeting eloquence by reminding the reader of their own potential for callousness, and in the process breaking them out of the notion that it would be so easy to find aesthetic beauty or philosophical grace in poverty if they were actually living it. The speaker notes of the beggar’s sobs, ‘against Pan’s pipes his pipes prevail’ as if to suggest you can romanticise the beggar’s hardship in verse all you like; It won’t lessen his burden.
Another poem from The Beggar that struck me was ‘The Lesser Stars,’ in which the poet grapples with the ancient fear of being forgotten. Mason tries his best to find nourishment in the artistic process alone, to ask nothing more of it, but can’t resist calling his own bluff with an aggressive line break.
yet we not complain
but hold high heads; it’s meed
enough to have labored and loved the labour we
But the speaker himself has no feign left by the end:
at times we mind how we shed our best blood but to
leave not a stain
then truly our hearts bleed
Try as I might I can’t bring myself to find this poem more bleak than beautiful. Perhaps it’s because the title itself, ‘The Lesser Stars,’ fully capitalised in my own edition, is nowhere repeated in the poem. Visually this gives the title the effect of glowing defiantly above the indifference that the poem laments.
I was simultaneously drawn to this story and somehow anxious about its existence. I was a sucker for a good tortured artist myth, and was there not something humble about dumping your hard-won poetic insights into the ocean?
I couldn’t help but notice that The Beggar, having been published in 1924, was Mason’s first volume of poems. His next major collection, the self-deprecatingly titled No New Thing, appeared a full decade later, and was followed in 1936 by a smaller collection, End of Day. It’s not until 1941, in the midst of World War Two, when a selection of Mason’s work to date was published, that a little bit of hope creeps into one of his book titles: This Dark Will Lighten. More to the point, it had just occurred to me that Mason had kept writing well after disappearing his work into the water. I had initially seen it as the ultimate act of self-pity, but now wondered if this disappearing act, this drowning of ones work to date, hadn’t been out of necessity. What, after all, was the point of hope? Of what assistance could it be? That’s what I began to ask myself.
I remember walking home one night from a late shift at the Central Library, my eyes stuck on my phone, feeling heavy with dead dreams. I was engaged in a message thread with my friend Rainy McMaster from the band Haunted Love, and she’d asked me how I was. I’d decided not to reply. If you don’t have anything positive to text, then don’t text anything at all.
‘I feel like I’m losing the battle,’ I texted a minute later.
‘I miss the creative headspace I had when I lived in Dunedin. I miss looking down on the city from Heriot Row with songs simmering away in my mind. I’ve been trying to think of a moniker too. Maybe that will help?’
‘Simon I think having a moniker might be really good for you,’ Rainy had replied with reliable enthusiasm.
Suddenly I had a flash of recognition.
‘What about Heriot Row?’ I texted.
I added an extra ‘r’ to personalise it, and because my mum loved those animal stories written by James Herriot, and before long the musical project Herriot Row was officially born. And with it renewed vows to the creative headspace with which I associated my new namesake – that stretch of road that ran above and perpendicular to Constitution Street, where I’d lived in a basement and written songs many years before. A renewed commitment, if you will, to the act of walking whilst keeping a candle lit at the same time.
In my favourite epic poem, Dante’s Commedia, there are words carved into stone above the gateway that leads to Hell:
I AM THE WAY TO A FORSAKEN PEOPLE . . .
ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE.
The words imply that hope is one of life’s necessary elixirs, and that to be without hope is to no longer cast a shadow. But Hell only tells half the story; I had started to reflect on the other side of hope. Martin Edmond writes in Dark Night: walking with McCahon, his book about a New Zealand painter as seminal as Mason, that ‘hope itself may be a cross to bear, especially once faith is gone. You can nail yourself to hope in a manner that will not banish despair the way faith does.’ Then there’s Raymond Carver who liked to have his favorite mottos near at hand as he worked on his short stories: ‘Isak Dinesen said that she wrote a little every day, without hope and without despair. Someday I’ll put that on a three-by-five card and tape it to the wall beside my desk.’ In Lester Bangs’ essay on the Van Morrison album Astral Weeks he ponders the way everyone he knows in New York has at some point learnt to just step over the bodies of the beggars they pass in the street. They have learnt do so without pain because of the unforseen side effect which occurred the one time they listened to their better instincts and reached out. ‘You got their hopes up. Which makes you viler than the most scrofulous carrion.’
Mason’s act of destroying his work began to transform itself in my mind. What I had at first interpreted as rash and desperate behaviour...was evolving into some kind of necessary renunciation – a letting go so as to hold on.
So in the midst of writing a song I came to call ‘The Beggar,’ Mason’s act of destroying his work began to transform itself in my mind. What I had at first interpreted as rash and desperate behaviour, as narcissistic as expecting anyone to read your poem in the first place, was evolving into some kind of necessary renunciation – a letting go so as to hold on.
In fact, an early Mason poem called ‘Sonnets of the Ocean Base,’ which he’d been circulating himself even before the publication of The Beggar, seems to prophesy the act when the poet dreams his way to the ocean floor. Down in this ‘light-untroubled world’ he explores the sunken fleets of another age, and compares the glimmering treasures housed within to ‘a rich poet’s purse-proud dreams outspread.’ Suddenly this splendor gives way to ‘skeletons of sneering dead’ and the poet, shocked to discover dreams and death sharing a bed, flees the scene. I had begun to see the other side of hope, and I allowed myself to empathise.
This doesn’t mean I knew quite how to take it when, not long before heading overseas to record a new collection of songs, I made a startling discovery. Robin Hyde, another New Zealand writer who means a lot to me, had thrown herself into the Waitemata harbour in 1933, not quite a decade after Mason had dispensed of his poems in that very same water.
Hyde spent two weeks in the Auckland Hospital Delerium tremens cells, and then agreed to be committed to The Lodge, a ward adjoining the Auckland Mental Hospital in Avondale. Owing to a forward thinking and insightful doctor, she was encouraged to write as an aid to recovery. It seems entirely possible that it was during this convalescence that Hyde wrote the poem ‘Neon Lights,’ which is drawn from her manuscripts of the mid-thirties. Its yearning for the type of fame that might draw the attention of a love interest makes it tempting to read it as something of a sister poem to ‘The Lesser Stars’:
Sometimes, I’d like my name plastered in Neon lights
Crimson and blue, across the velvety nights.
But as it turns out Hyde had a poem that echoes Mason’s even more closely in ‘The Desolate Star,’ the title poem of her 1929 debut volume:
Little gentle winds of dawn come gently to them,
All the living stars — the other stars. . .
And I go, lonely . . .
They know not —
They whose flowers quicken at the heart,
Of the darkness where the life-fires glow not —
Where, set apart,
I must follow, lost . . .
Maybe hope was necessary after all, and maybe the ability to intellectualise hope simply meant you weren’t struggling as much as you thought you were. Emily Dickinson saw hope as ‘the thing with feathers . . .that kept so many warm,’ and writer Rebecca Solnit has called it ‘a gift you don’t have to surrender, a power you don’t have to throw away.’ Perhaps hope was like gold. There’s pure gold and then there’s fool's gold, and it’s easy to lose sight of one whilst going in search of the other.
In 2014 a dream came true. I flew to San Francisco and made the debut Herriot Row record with John Vanderslice. Aside from being a songwriter, he was also the founder of the all-analogue Tiny Telephone Studios, a highly revered ‘functioning museum’ in the Mission District. John’s enthusiasm had been palpable from the first emails we’d exchanged and that same warmth and positive energy flowed inexhaustibly through our recording sessions. He knew exactly how to work a sensitive and nervy singer-songwriter like myself towards doing work that didn’t suck. No matter how shaky I was, when I went back into the control room everything was always ‘awesome.’ Not that he was letting me settle for average; If he really thought something could benefit from another take, he’d tell me. But rather than sending me straight back into the tracking room to run through a song until I hated it, he’d do so a few days later, once my excitement about the album had begun to outweigh my anxiety and jet lag.
The other thing is, he’d never get me to redo something just because I’d played a bit loose or sung a bit flat. In fact, he wouldn’t let me. He practically insisted those aspects of a recording be left in. Knowing all too well that the singer can be the worst judge of their own performance, he would sometimes move on to the next job without letting me listen back to what I’d just done. Vanderslice pushed back against the artist in order to let the song breathe. In his own stubbornly eccentric indie rock way he was a total pro, and I felt like I was getting a boost of artistic serotonin the whole time.
There is no analogy I can think of to explain how strange and fun it is to try and sing along with your backwards self. I emerged from the echo chamber feeling dizzy and exhilarated.
I was a tad melancholy as I took my habitual morning constitutional through the Mission on the way to our final day of recording. I didn’t want the serotonin boost to end. By the afternoon we only had two jobs left. First I overdubbed some electric guitar through a phaser pedal onto the track ‘Neon Lights,’ the lyrics of which adapted many lines from the Robin Hyde poem of the same name. An exceedingly strong coffee was just kicking in when Vanderslice sent me into an echo chamber (pictured in the feature image of this essay) to do the very last item on our recording to-do list. He thought the outro of ‘The Beggar’ could do with some backwards vocals on it. We’d achieve them by me listening to the song played backwards and trying to sing along to it in whatever way I chose. He would in turn flip my new vocal backwards and judiciously mix it in through the end of the song. There is no analogy I can think of to explain how strange and fun it is to try and sing along with your backwards self. I emerged from the echo chamber feeling dizzy and exhilarated. Listening back to a rough mix-down I couldn’t believe how right it was. High fives and hugs abounded. We were done.
After leaving the studio I cut through to the adjoining skate park. It was early evening. The park was empty aside from the wind and a few teenagers sitting with their boards on the lip of the skate bowl. I could hear their voices being scattered by the wind and I suddenly felt a little homesick. I sat myself down against the trunk of a tree near the bowl and pulled out a lighter and a joint. I hardly ever smoked pot, and I hadn’t touched alcohol in months, but it wasn’t every day you got hooked up with a medically approved strain of organic marijuana sporting a name like ‘Granddaddy O.G.’ I held the joint between my lips and sparked up the lighter. In the instant that I raised the lighter to the joint the wind had blown the flame out. I tried again, this time cupping the lighter with my hands to keep the flame alight. No good. I tried over and over, but the wind had picked up and I just didn’t have the knack for this kind of thing. I felt like a nerdy teen in a B-grade comedy, painfully aware of the audience laughing outside the frame.
I tried again, this time cupping the lighter with my hands to keep the flame alight. No good. I tried over and over...
The skaters wandered past on their way out of the park. I got up and walked towards the skate bowl. I shuffled down one of the more shallow concrete banks, found a sheltered point where the curves of the bowl ran deeper, and crouched down. Finally I got the damn thing lit. I breathed in the smoke and held my breath until I could no longer repress a cough. I only took one more hit and then I stubbed the joint out and put it in my shirt pocket. I walked out the shallow end of the bowl and took my leave.
I walked north on San Bruno Ave and then turned left onto 24th Street. On every other night I’d amble up 24th to El Farolito Taqueria to order some dinner from the ladies who only spoke Spanish (and I only English). I’d keep going past my Airbnb on Alabama Street to Philz Coffee where I’d order my new favourite fix – a long espresso with a sprig of mint. Then I’d try not to buy too many second hand books at Modern Times and Alley Cat. But on this final night I took a right off 24th onto Portrero Ave and just kept walking. Twilight was winding down. I was a little stoned, and I had Surrealistic Pillow by Jefferson Airplane turned up on my iPod. I was headed towards the water.
Forty-five minutes and many Instagrams later I’d reached the eastern waterfront – the Embarcadero. Night had fallen. I turned left and followed the sea wall past the ferry building and the railway museum until one of the many piers made me halt. Pier 7 was lined by tall old-fashioned streetlights and stretched out into the water. An old Mexican fisherman with his rod over his shoulder passed me as I walked down the pier. I turned around to watch him go, only to find he had done the same. Our eyes briefly met, and then it was just me.
From the end of the pier I looked out across the water to the lights of the Oakland Bay Bridge. I felt the bliss of being alone, without a hope in the world. I closed my eyes and just let the salty breeze wash over my face. The longer I stood there the more oblivious I became to the challenges that lay ahead. I looked down and felt the hypnotic pull of the dark waters. It was my cellphone vibrating in my pocket that broke the spell.
It was a text from Vanderslice. I took a blurry photo of the lights reflecting off the dark water and sent it to him.
‘You were right,’ I added. ‘It’s a really mellow buzz!’
I told you! Wait till you pour an IPA over that shit!!!’
I suddenly noticed Surrealistic Pillow had ended. I cued up another of my favourite San Francisco psychedelic albums, John Fahey’s The Great San Bernardino Birthday Party and Other Excursions. Then I walked back the way I’d come in search of a good strong beer.