1Artist 7Tracks- The Streets - 1 - "Never Went to Church"

The song that sparked the idea for this series was “Never Went to Church”. It’s one of several songs by Mike Skinner, aka, The Streets, whose lyrics I find popping into my mind probably as often as any other artist’s. Something he’s said will resonate in a particular situation and, even if I don’t agree, I’ll be drawn to the cogency and economy of some sentence or phrase or verse with which he’s captured and bottled a feeling or an idea.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ygzSXn3oxKU

In this case, I was listening to a discussion about the experience of losing a parent, one I’m fortunate not to have had. Maybe it was the fact that the song captures the particular ‘son grieves father’ scenario so lucidly, perhaps because the coping style Skinner describes conflicted slightly with the discussion, but for whatever reason there it was, front and centre of my mind, and me helpless in the face of the song’s rawness and stinging imagery.

The title is sung in the chorus:

“We never went to church,

Just get on with work and sometimes things will hurt,

But it’s hit me since you left us,

And it’s so hard not to search,

If you were still about, I’d ask you what I’m supposed to do now

I just get a bit scared, every now, hope I made you proud.”

I’ve never been certain if it means ‘we never went to church while you were alive, as a family, full-stop’ or ‘we never went to church to grieve when you passed away’. Because of the line ‘but it’s hit me since you left us’, I lean towards the interpretation that the family never were church-going and that we always found other ways to cope, but now thoughts of a life beyond this one are proliferating with the loss of his father. Though it could be that not grieving in church is now catching up with him at the time of writing.

The track is structured Chorus - Verse - Chorus - Versus - Chorus - Chorus with variation. There is a killer line at the end of Verse 2 which to me gives the entire thing its emotional depth. But all the way along, it’s replete with little shards of sadness. The wistful “hope I made you proud” just slides in as an aside at the end of the chorus, but is such a tender and boyish sentiment for a man to put out there. I compare the chorus both in musicality and construction to that of Puff Daddy’s “I’ll be Missing You” (which I’ve always found much more poignant than the original by The Police). There, how you process the line “every single day, every time I pray” is entirely conditioned and accorded its weight through the knowledge that the person being sung to (Biggy Smalls) won’t be there for any of those days. Just so, the use of the past tense “hope I made you proud” seems such a profound thing to address to a deceased father.

In Streets canon, this would be in the ‘soft suite’. When The Streets came onto the scene, Skinner’s popularity was fuelled by his honesty and by his realistic description of life as a young person in Britain: drinking, drugs, laddishness, regrettable dalliances (more of all of which later in the series). However, each of his five albums has at least one ‘ballad’, usually released a single, as in this case. These anthems to male emotion tend to hit all the harder for being flanked by the gritty and the comics. “Never went to Church” is from album three, “The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living”, most of which is Skinner’s reflection on fame. It opens with “Prangin Out”: “Never Went to Church” serves as a reprieve in between “When You Wasn’t Famous”, the story of a shortlived tabloid love affair, and “Hotel Expressionism”, the fine art of trashing your room. Skinner has described this as his most ambitious and misunderstood album. It took a while to grow on me, but I found the songs rewarded relistening as little nuances peaked out from between the lines. In the title track, he refers repeatedly to ‘telling Mum’ to ready her for stories in the tabloids or that his money might be about to run out. Connecting up the dots, it adds to the picture of the Mum left alone by his Dad’s passing, now fretting as her son’s life plays out in public. As it happens, there aren’t any more from this album in the queue for the next week, but I’d still say it’s worth a few whirls.

Mainly Skinner’s trade is rap-cum-spoken word, but he fears neither singing nor leaving in the takes with the bum notes. A sung chorus is one of the tropes of the ballads and it’s particularly effective on “Never Went to Church”. The chorus is high so forces him out of his natural range into falsetto. Yes, it’s in the mix with some much sturdier vocals, but the strained Skinner vocal helps link the chorus to the verses and maintain the slightly desperate and searching effect.

Verse 1 opens:

“You tidied your things into the bin the more poorly you grew,

So there’s nothing of yours to hold or to talk to”

He sets up the scenario whereby, in an effort to make grieving less painful, his father has overshot the runway while still alive. Instead of having mountains of possessions to painfully part with, all has been put aside as the end drew closer. This sets up the dilemma of the moment:

“I miss you Dad but I’ve got nothing to remind me of you.”

The first verse is about struggle and confusion. It’s about being without the one person who’s guidance you could most do with at that exact moment.

“You’d be scratching your head through the best advice you knew.”

The image of flailing around in empty space for some physical thing to hold onto and consult with seems to mesh with reaching for spiritual meaning. There’s a neat line in verse 2 about how “if God exists he’d pay me regard” for not turning to him just when things were tough.

We also get a sense of the man being mourned. As well as the organised and compassionate man packing up his things, there’s also the detail of how he’d “interrupt the conversation with a ‘but’”, a trait his son has inherited.

The line which turns the song It’s in those lines about not searching for God but putting the head down and dealing that balance starts to be restored in verse 2. There again there’s a stubbornness his mother thinks was bequeathed him. There’s even a payoff to the use of the phrased ‘tidied your things’ when he says how he “tidied my room like you so I could see things straight”.

Then this:

“I guess then you did leave me something to remind me of you,

Every time I interrupt someone the way you used do,

When I do something like you, you’ll be on my mind too,

‘Cause I forgot you left me behind to remind me of you.”

Ouch.

Why am I doing this? In part, I was inspired by Joe Donnelly’s excellent Tins and Tunes podcast. Music is freakin great and we should all talk about it more and enjoy it more together. I’m also still a bit annoyed that more people I knew didn’t take The Streets project to heart and give it the attention it deserved. Around the time this album was out, I remember being party to a conversation about men and women and how they differ in their partnering strategies. I was sitting at a computer and had the album in the CD drive (God be with the days). I invited the folks I was conversing with to listen to “War of the Sexes”, track 2 on Hardest Way which makes some funny observations about male mating strategies.

“Nah man, leave that off, I fecking hate The Streets”.

Huh? I didn’t get it. Well I kinda did, but I didn’t get how I could spend a week getting acquainted with an album this dude hadn’t even heard yet and that he could all but say, nah, there’s nothing worth hearing outta this guy, and me, I should know better ways of spending my time and money.

That line about being left behind as the reminder of one who’s passed on floored me and it still floors me. I’ve reached for it while grieving, both as a way to help the tears along, and as a point of resolution: from here forth, part of what I am is part of this person’s legacy and here at this point our lives forever more shall intersect. In some ways I think that the most likely afterlife there is out there is for our energies to continue to ripple through those we’ve affected as they carry us forward and pass that love along.

I think an artist with the capacity to floor me like that deserves a little of my time to explain how and why.

On the final chorus, instead of the lines about how he’d ask his Dad what to do now and being scared, the ending changes to:

“But you used to tell me how you didn’t know what to even now

So now I’m not so scared

I know that you’d be proud”.


Next time, back to where it all began.


You Won't Get Me, I'm Part of the Union

Jen and I just took a holiday in Sligo. I went to Sligo a man and came home a panorama junkie. Horses cantering across tidal strands, the whiff of accordion music lilting across the air from the Fleadh Cheoil downtown: we eventually had to stop smiling across at each other for fear the whole adventure become an accidental reenactment of a Discover Ireland ad.

Beguiled by the rural rhythms and enjoying following my nose in yesterday's clothes, my news antenna was fairly well retracted for the entirety. When I finally checked into social media after unpacking yesterday, it appeared that this year’s Ice Bucket Challenge involves giving three pounds to a mainstream UK party in exchange for a vote in their leadership contest. Much like last summer’s viral sensation, it seems like quirkier is better, which seems like good news for supporters of Jeremy Corbyn. The question is whether those people will still be stumping up their three quid and pounding the doorsteps in three years’ time, or if they’ll have moved on to organising National Dress Upside-Down Day (note to self, purchase dicky bow).

One concern I read about Corbyn is that he’s too readily associated with trade unions and with the dark days of the 1970s and 80s when unions dug in their heels to fight Conservative austerity and lost. This would more than echo the concerns about the previous leader Ed Miliband being the Unions’ man. I have some sympathy with this view. Unionised labour is a phenomenon quite opaque to many in my generation. They’re seen as shit-stirrers out of doors and stitch-up merchants within. In Ireland, a general protest in response to the “bailout” deal with the European Union and International Monetary Fund in 2010 culminated in the booing of trade union leaders by the generation they might have hoped to sign up that very day. With some notable exceptions, students’ unions are administrative machines which don’t imbue in young people any grand appreciation for collective action. Very little public discussion serves to educate people as to what unions do, let alone any of the murkiness of how they operate. So why join one? Here’s why I did.

The University and College Union (whose name I love, only because the shorthand rhymes with “Lucy Liu”) contacts each new member of staff at Queen’s via the local branch on campus. Initially, I was nonplussed by the shiny and excessively pink bumf which contained my invitation. Given the climate of cuts, I didn’t fancy being bound into regular industrial action. Surely I could make better use of those few quid each month, even if I only stuck ‘em under the digital mattress. Even several months later when UCU began agitating on a UK-wide level for a small pay increase, I wasn’t particularly convinced. They eventually voted for low-level industrial action in the form of 2-hour work stoppages: a way of making visible representation while minimising impact on students.

Then the universities hit back against the threat of strike action, with several suggesting that taking an extended lunchbreak with a placard in hand constituted partial performance for that day’s work and warranted docking a whole day’s pay. So I joined the union and the strike on the grounds that universities were trying to bully their employees into working and weaken the union’s ability to negotiate. To do nothing would be to endorse that approach, so forced to chose sides, I chose the other. The dispute was eventually settled when members voted to accept an upwardly revised pay deal, but not before a nervy few weeks of escalating action and threats of assessment boycotts, i.e., holding students' grades to ransom.

During the period of action, I got some sense of this particular union's machinations. I had imagined something akin to a locally focussed political party of colleagues: a group with with some things in common getting together to find other things in common and building consensus leading to action. The main consensus I did gather was that, after the fashion of many public sector unions, most people join for individual reasons rather than any great drive for solidarity. For example, the legal protection the union would offer should they ever find themselves, say, sued by a student. Reciprocally, local branch officials attested that most of their time was taken up not with organising with individual level disputes and advocating on behalf of individual members. The analogies with political parties were striking. Commitment emanates from ideas, but energy ends up being absorbed by essentially logistics (poetry, prose, etc.).

So were there any shared visions? One lunchtime meeting I attended had as the final agenda item a discussion of how we might engage students in the campaign. One idea was to do a teach-in and discuss with students what have been the effects of neoliberal economics on universities, i.e. commodification of their education, student loan debt bubbles, etc. This was debated for a while between the few who fancied debating, while others quietly slipped out.

What ended up happening during the last 2-hour action was a short play distilling the issues organised between members and a local drama group. The theme tune was an old picket line classic, "You won't get me I'm part of the union, til the day I die" (quite catchy actually.) I was fearful of some ghastly cheese, but it was actually okay (and ended up borrowing substantially from the aforementioned lunchtime meeting).

I say nobody ever told me what a union is for. 99% true. I did take Leaving Certificate economics, but my teacher way preferred the micro to the macro. I could draw you graphic representations of the three exceptions to the law of demand or recite definitions of diminishing returns, but could I tell you why Finland gives a greater proportion of national income to the labour force than Ireland? Nada, sorry. However, I do remember once peeking down at one of the mysterious questions down the bottom of the paper which read "Discuss the following statement: Trade Unions can be thought of as monopoly suppliers of Labour". Hmm, that sounded sensible. To offset the monopoly supply of wages by employers, unions mirror the actions of a monopoly supplier who can threaten to withdraw supply in order to forcibly raise price, without fear of competitors. If true, what this means is that rather than being a feature of a socialist landscape, unions' actions can be seen as playing within the precise rules that a capitalist society dictates: you exert your influence to extract your highest price, we’ll do same.

I'll admit that since the mini-strikes, I've largely let my email filter process the news from the old UCU has going on. And I've totally given up on receiving anything from Lucy Liu, though if I ever get dragooned into serving on a branch committee, her agent might just be getting a cold call. Money still comes out of my pay and all I get is the same sensation I imagine Greenpeace subscribers enjoy- a vague sense of being loosely part of something designed to increase gross national fairness. Like politics, public perception of unions seems like a self-fulfilling prophesy. Nah, it’s all run by nobbly institutionalised men in grey suits. I won’t get involved. Well then, guess who it’ll be run by in twenty years. Get the sleeves up, otherwise it’s game set Thatcher.