The choir of female voices exhale their mournful chord. A pause, then they return, differently configured but still as wistful. Over time, their ebbing, flowing sighs establish a gentle undulation, one that mirrors in sound the gentle hills on the horizon beyond the wing tip. Eno, Sonia smiles to herself. Music for Airports. How apt is that? She remembers Fletch telling her how Eno had felt that the usual sludge of muzak they piped into airport reception lounges was so inappropriate to the needs of those about to fly. They needed, he had reasoned, music that not only calmed you, but also lent itself to quiet contemplation. They needed, in short, something more spiritual than a bossa nova take on ‘Light my fire’ or the Tijuana Brass. After all, Eno had figured, this flight could so easily be your last. How thoughtful of Fletch, she thinks, to set the scene so perfectly for her impending demise in the wreckage of flight BA438.
The compilation is a parting gift. He’d even come out to Heathrow to see her off. Taxi must have set him back. She’d given him a long, tearful hug and felt her throat catch as she’d thanked him for everything. He had given her so much, she appraises as she speeds through the crystalline blue, that she would still be at the departure gate now if she hadn’t given him a quick valedictory peck on the cheek and fled when she did. But if she could only keep one gift from her vast debt to Fletch, it would have to be the music. Each CD he’d burned for her had opened up whole new vistas for her to explore. There was the early stuff – from Blue Note, through doo-wop, R & B, rockabilly and soul – then the weird hippy shit, the prog, the punk, the ambient, the protest and the party songs. The jagged little pebble she had been, snarling and sneering in a vacuum of death metal had been rounded and buffed by the seemingly endless tides of warm, cleansing sound. So much stuff she had absorbed in such a short time. And with it, by osmosis, a little bit of Fletch had entered her. Whether through anecdote or the comprehensive sleeve notes that usually accompanied each collection, she could often identify his emotional condition and state of mind from the running order alone, sometimes with the precision of carbon dating.
She knows this next one too. Robert Wyatt, from Rock Bottom. There had to be something from his favourite album on there, of course. This track always makes her think of someone being pulled into a whirlpool, sucked from the glacial calm of the still sea, deeper and deeper into chaos. The fragmented, whimsical words tell only half the tale. There is a lazy calm and glittering light plays on the surface of the water as a piano doodles and synthesizers shimmer. The tranquillity of the introduction soon gives way to an altogether darker undercurrent with an urgent, asymmetrical tug. Wyatt’s scrambled, delirious phrasing sits uneasily astride the music’s stubborn, insistent yaw:
Seaweed tangled in our home from home
Reminds me of your rocky bottom
Please don't wait for the paperweight
Err on the good side
Touch us when we collapse
The words slip out like sleep talk, Wyatt a somnambulant about to plunge down a staircase, unheeding of the trustworthy banister the music offers to ease his passage downward. His voice, like a tiny lost soul gasping, pleading to be allowed to expand, is plunged into the ocean, engulfed by the deep. His metre finally finds some awkward accommodation with the music’s rhythms and off-kilter syncopation:
Into the water we'll go head over heel
We'll not grow fat inside
The mammary gland
He’s riffing now, his voice transformed into a jazz kazoo, a wah-wahing scat solo surfing the waves as their unstoppable momentum builds, before returning to the refrain. The ominous head behind him provokes in the tiny soul one final shrill squeal, like that of an exposed and naked Dalek, as its fate becomes clear. To be consumed either by water or by sand, only burial or drowning await -
Into the water we'll go
Head over heel
A head behind me
Buried deep in the sand
Is his head tumbling into the water or buried deep in the sand? Regardless, he is perversely pulled further out to sea by the music’s deeper logic, the tiny soul drifts out to the horizon with the carrion as seagulls hover, their sharp ascending caws plunked out by piano. Panic fades to stoic calm as the figure recedes from our view, lost at sea, drowning, sucked down into the deep, oblivious to our waves from the shoreline.
Fletch was a fan way before the accident. His accident, not Wyatt’s. They’d even met when Wyatt lived in Twickenham, not far from Fletch’s stomping ground and the college. He’d told Sonia wistfully about the meetings, usually by the river, where they’d sit opposite the boathouses of Eel Pie Island, Robert, Alfreda and Fletch. There, in quiet but bitter tones, they would bemoan Thatcher and apartheid, or sometimes giggle at the hapless busker’s attempts to impress with his comically inept renditions of ‘Shipbuilding’ and ‘I’m a believer’, hacked out on a badly tuned Spanish guitar. It had taken Fletch a while to be able to listen to Rock Bottom after his own accident, or so he’d told Sonia. Listening now to ‘A last straw’, Sonia can’t see how he could listen to it at all, so closely does she identify the album with the traumas of coming to terms with paralysis. Had Fletch felt the same giving way beneath him, of calm become storm, the same sense of being sucked down a plughole that she feels listening to the song?
Or perhaps the true beauty of the song is its generality. Aren’t we all holiday makers, she wonders, tangled together like seaweed in our borrowed homes, unaware of the snow storm awaiting us once fate starts to violently convulse the paperweight of our lives, showering us like snowdrops and leaving us to float like embers down towards the rocky bottom? The head behind us? Is that our own headstone as we are buried in the sand or engulfed by the water? She thinks of The Wasteland. Death by Fire. Death by Water. Death by Burial. But then Wyatt is insistent: “please don’t wait for the paperweight”. Live now, he says. The paperweight will come regardless. Plunge into the water, head over heels, embrace the chaos of the fall. We must offer ourselves up and trust, he seems to be saying, that some one will be there to touch us. To touch us when we collapse.
Sonia O’Donnell slides the headphones out from under her headscarf and rests back in her seat. She closes her eyes as the plane ripples gently on its way through some mild turbulence. She is smiling. She keeps smiling a serene, delicate little secret smile as she dozes, gently alternating waking and snoozing until the aircraft’s computer begins the soft, controlled descent.
© 2006 Swipe Enterprises