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Keep Your Eyes on the Road Up Ahead – I Don’t Seem to Be Able to Use Mine

I’m going to try (once again) to write a bit more here. It will necessarily largely be stringing beads on the thread of the week, and I’ll need to work harder at writing better than comes naturally, but it is with the intention of plugging recent experiences into the wider set of more permanent feelings and thoughts.

Saturdays have become my day for catching up on bookmarked articles and things of interest held in abeyance during the week, so that’s also the time I’m likeliest to post.

Sometimes a song has a line or moment in it which seems to catch something about a moment now, or of another place, without it being clear why:

Pete Hammill’s Sitting Targets reaches a typical point of anguish, with the lines:

And I’m losing control of my body, and I’m running scared.
Oh, remember the black and white movie,
A positional state of affairs,
Of the fashionable interest in moving,
Just to prove that we’re there.

(In fact it is apparently, ‘We’re left with a black and white movie, a positional state of affairs, An obsessional interest in moving, just to prove that we’re there’ which is clearly right on a re-listen. but the line that’s been in my head has been that ‘of the fashionable interest in moving’.)

This is a propulsive song about escape, from an emotional trauma only defined by the terms of its escape.

If we’d been stuck just a few hours more
I’d have cracked up, I’d say.
No, you never can tell when it’s coming;
It’s so hard getting out of the way;

It is something impending that has brought about the crisis – and with the road and car the means of escape it would be wrong to say something coming down the road. It is more something that looms, something unavoidable, but out of sight, something which makes you feel like a sitting target. Target for what is the question implied by the title. I tend to feel that all art of mid-sixties to early 80s should be assumed in some way to be characterised by anxieties of possible sudden nuclear annihilation, and there is obviously existential fear here, but also there is a sense of the claustrophobia of your home environment, of society and time closing in.

Oh you never can tell how it’s going,
No you never can see how it’s been,
But to stay sitting targets is surely
No better than living a dream.

So that set of lines, which kept on surfacing in my head, work against the rest of the song, and critique the urge for escape – the motion is out of control, it is required for a sense of self and of agency, otherwise unavailable to someone staying in the same place.

That this song plays into a deep-seated set of my own anxieties – staying in one place, continuous building on something being an exclusion of other possibilities, ultimately stemming I think from fears of death – is certainly one part of why this song appeals to me generally.

But its point of specific application right now – the thing that caused it to snag on a hook – is harder to define. I find myself circling around the notion that ‘Of a fashionable interest in moving’ is suggestive of psychosomatic mechanisms at play in society at the moment – the need to express internal stresses in other forms.

A trick that Hammill pulls off quite well across his albums I think is to locate these particular moments of emotional agon into social/historical/scientific spaces, which allows for this sort of application.

It is surely not the motion aspect of the song though – a decade of Tory government now using policy as a way of rhetorically realising an apparently expressed desire for a permafrosted 1945-1948 country means it must be more the threat of stasis implied by the idea of sitting targets.

Perhaps it also links into anxieties I have about the debates taking place on the left – the need and indeed the opportunity to reframe for the future, of the possibilities of the new communities that will form, that are forming, identified in their literary expressions by John Self at the end of his piece on the Brexit novel (a phenomenon to which I am totally indifferent, unless it’s written by a John Lanchester of course). The song seems to warn of the need to avoid the stasis born of fear, and inutile movement for movement’s sake, which is not in itself progressive, but an escape.

As I say, I am fully aware these are, in proper Pete Hammill fashion, personal anxieties mapping onto the social and political space.