Spooking the Spooky Men.
I had not known what to expect of the Spooky Men at the Sidmouth Folk Festival last year. But then I was at a stage in my life when expectations of almost anything were proving either exhausting or dangerous. if i did have any expectations then they were of what the evening would not be rather than what it would be. i was not expecting the Spooky’s to be at all Spooky in the Halloween sense of domesticated terror, though i would have been happy to have been properly spooked as the morality folk tales were wearing a little thin . I thought that the Spooky Men might be fun a change from the many different brands of competing seriousness and claims for authenticity that are often served up at folk festivals, love them though I do. they certainly didn’t sound as though they were working to preserve any art form that was in immediate danger of extinction.
As the show rolled i realised that one thing that I was not ready for a stage full of intimidating men in black chanting Georgian folk song, while wearing curious hats. This wall of bass was highly striking and augured well for the evening ahead. Nor was i I expecting a series of songs loosely linked through the theme of the state of contemporary manhood, or lack of it. i was drawn in by this performance as it unfolded, finding myself touched as much as tickled by this blokish tableau. I enjoyed in particular the anarchic, mock threatening tone of the show and the conventions that it sought to subvert, conventions of folk performance as much as of gender representation.
As the curtain fell to a rousing ‘Parting Glass’ I felt impulsed to join the band at the merchandising desk, an act i normally eschew for fear of uttering inchoate sycophancy while buying a scrawled upon CD that i might rarely listen to later. i decided then in the moment of approach not weakly to declare my fandom but rather to approach this long line of Spooky’s in an idiom resonant with the mood and pitch of the show.
I moved towards the nearest available Spooky men whom at first sight was possibly the most intimating of them all, resplendent in viking hat and sleeveless wife-beater tee shirt, Seeking an entry point for our exchange i found myself asking him in mock earnest tone the question ‘What are the twelve themes of the spooky men then?’ He regarded me in silence, a look of incredulous contempt spreading slowly across his face. ‘What do you mean the twelve themes?’ he snapped. ‘Who told you about the twelve themes? and how do you know there are twelve?’
Suddenly if felt as if my attempt at unbalancing the Spooky’s with an amateur version of their own destabilising techniques might be working against me, the blackened boot now firmly on the other foot. ‘Well’ i declared with a confidence i did not feel, biding my time while reaching for explanation where none existed, ‘you sang about twelve songs and each song revealed a theme. So tell me the themes please!’ I was happy with my retort – even i it i was only playing for time – and awaited his response, as he rocked a little on his heels. At last he said ‘ i am not sure who told you these things about our little secrets but perhaps you know more than you are letting on. So tell me before we go any further – and by way of a test – what is the first theme?’
‘An easy one to kick off with then’ i breathed, hardly daring to take the pause that might betray the fact that i was totally at sea’ The first song was about the mess. It referenced the inevitability, the sheer ineluctability of the occurrence of mess when men are around. In line with this universal truth your Spooky Men show and your project also begins with the mess. It recognises that all creativity begins with disruption. And of course all men are uniquely good at disrupting things, learning from their earliest times as little boys there is nothing they like better than transgressive interruptions.’
‘I see’ he growled, ‘that might make some sort of sense. I think i had better pass you over to the next spooky to take your inquiries on.’ Without further ado i was passed along the line to a guy in a pith helmet, nicely offsetting his back kilt. I Introduced him to him the notion of the twelve themes,citing theme number one, ‘the mess’ as an example. He maintained the same pretence of surprise as the first Spooky. ‘So you tell me’ he grunted’ if you know so much these themes then tell me about number two, the theme that is so much elusive than the rather obvious nursery slopes of knowing that is theme number one.’
‘Well actually’ i said hitting my stride with a welcome second wind ‘ theme number two is not that inaccessible. The second song was of course about ‘concrete’ and as we know men love things to be concrete. Academic males even overuse the term ‘concretisation’ to evince their need to make theory tangible. We men like to take our reality solid and durable. we like nothing better than to make the mess concrete. We love to kick the metaphorical tyres before deciding to buy. We are desperate to know that that we can touch the mess; that we can feel the goo solidify before our very eyes as it sits inside the pattern and grows comfortable with the pattern. it all begins with the mess, then the holy mess is made concrete. Nothing can break through the concrete not even interrogators skilled in breaking down the most impenetrable of defences.’
This seemed to silence him, as he rubbed his impressive stubble by way of a dismissive gesture pulling the next available Spooky into the conversation. ‘I think you may be getting close but something we treasure almost as much as concrete you have yet failed to mention? Well have you? Come on! come on.’
‘Patience please as I come to the blessed theme three, that of course of ‘tools’, of ‘being tooled’, of mastery over the universe and not only that but mastery over the tools themselves which is no mean feat. You Spooky Men have nailed, glued and screwed the theme of tools. This is about the hegemony of tools that take men beyond the ape – and that amazing antipodal thumb that allows us to wield them. Through the wielding of tools we men sense the reassuring presence of a power higher than ourselves. And at some level there exists a belief that this control is extended beyond tool use to a place deep within the inner silverback that prowls beneath our supposedly domesticated skin.’
I am treated to an impassive stare from Spooky three in what i would like to believe is mute acknowledgement of this underlying truth. He heads off to sign an album cover while pushing another sung-out Spook in my direction. With his head inclined towards me he listens with a sigh to my treatise on theme number four, the theme of mens’ perpetual struggle with the conflicting instincts of ‘flight or fight’, that primitive instinct that remains so close to the surface despite all our efforts to concrete our expression of emotions. He realises that a checkmate could be in play here. I seem him conjecture that if he moves away he confirms this hypothesis; and equally if he stands up and confronts me he does the same. Barely holding himself together – for the evening has clearly taken its toll – he summons the energy and restraint to ask levelly ‘What then is number four if flight and fight be three? what more can there be beyond fight and flight?’
‘Ah well,’ I say, trying hard not to introduce that slow tone one might use with a particularly slow child ‘Remember that piece where you all mess around, joking about the ridiculousness of mens’ inability to express emotions? Well you made a good enough fist of explaining that men do this in their own way and often through the concrete when they check each other out by dint of comparing possessions or competencies. This is not so much sentimental muteness as a registering that men – albeit dimly – do it in different ways. And that is number four.’
‘Oh I see, well i have things to do, why not chat to my mate about these themes he is younger and i feel he will know all about them. Me i need a drink.’ The next Spooky up does indeed seem younger, barely shaving and does seem less resistant to my inquiry than some of his more world weary mates. In fact he shows interest in the revelation of the first four themes and asks with interest about theme five. We talk of the oxymoronic quality of ‘epic futility’ and ‘pointless grandeur’ that seem to marks men’s passage through their life’s course. Given that he was not really that scary of countenance, I felt able to say that in our culture and perhaps in others it might seem that all men the bogeymen.
And that in exaggerating spookiness then the Spooky’s demythologise the myth of the bogeyman that lurks in hearts of all men. the myth of the bogeyman is revealed in the exaggeration as bogus. and perhaps the heavily ironised ‘magnificence’ of men cloaks a true magnificence that is beyond the hunt for the mythic mastodon. I ask if it is true that he ‘gets no satisfaction?’ He says that at times he does but says that Jagger was touching a raw and enduring male nerve – and that that song deserved a more bass-based treatment than it had ever received before.
he seems to resonate with this interpretation – i take a risk and ask him if he feels ‘pretty enough?’
He looks a little wistful, perhaps illustrating a further theme that is revealed. That not only is not okay to be ‘pretty enough; but that deep down few men feel that they are. As a reflect on this with my young muse i am hit be a powerful sense of poignancy. I feel a need to reach for the Spooky caring circle of loving and feeling, though i know in realty that no such succour exists. but then that is two more songs down now, and i am nearer my quota of twelve and out before i am thoroughly found out. As I look around at the now empty hall i see the opportunity to get away and allow these Spooks to let down their armour, if they ever do. But my exit is blocked by the Spookmeister, the man in the furry flying hat who leads things from the front the man whom i learn is called Stephen. He asks why it is that i have been bothering his merry band, and could I tell him what these twelve principles are all about?
I said that i was surprised that he did not know, but was happy to rehearse the themes excavated to date, and to relate them to the corresponding songs in the play-list. ‘Okay’ he said impassively, ‘So if that i what in revealed then it is deeply in the realm of Freudian slippage as no such listing of themes has been recognised before. But if i were to continue to indulge your conceit, then pray tell me the remaining themes?’
Frozen for a moment, immobile in the face of the unsmiling face of this man who seemed so funny when on stage,
I reached for new explanation, then felt a powerful channeling of a force beyond my consciousness that began to speak to truths that I could not have known of before this attempt at post-show knockabout began. I said of course that my indicating that there was any such listing of themes – with the hint that there might be a hierarchy within such a listing – was in fact an ironic device to parody the male propensity for categorisation and codification. for in truth there is no taxonomy of Spookiness. You invite listing but you resist it and subvert it also. It is not a matter of lists but of layers, of layers that build through the cumulative impact of the songs rather than an atomisation that attributes individual meaning to individual songs.
Stephen continued to stare unblinking and unimpressed. In the silence I channel on now into deeply speculative territory. ‘So it is beyond a listing or even of the cumulative impact but in the underlying prospectus of the project the underlying predicate. Which is that presentation of this spooky work is a strong paradox that lies in the fact that such scary men can express themselves through such wonderful harmony. The harmonic presides angelically above the mess the disruption – yet it is fragile and could break down at any time. Therein lies the contradiction of male vulnerability because it is beautiful and that is why it is so seldom seen, like the desert orchid. And the males in the audience Stephen cant you see they long to join you?’
‘yes I think i see that yet is not that simple to join us it is not that easy to clown about in this way’ he mused.Exactly! And that is why it is not clowning at all but it is deadly serious in a funny way. the other contradiction would seem to be that deep down and in quite a feminine way you do care for your audience. Within the disruption lies a caring, and within the seeming wholeness you acknowledge that amid tis seeming wholeness of performance that there is something missing or lost there is something left behind. The struggle of the band to keep it all together is quite compelling amid the truth that are always working with incompleteness. This is the rarely acknowledged masculine double narrative.’
‘And the tools?’
‘Yes of course the tools bring their own problems of adaptation and of classification too. those are the problems of finding the bits that fit, the tool bits the drill bits that fit. And amid all of this toolbox talk there is a voice that speaks to the wider fit; the fit between men and women. Perhaps what is needed a tool that is an adapter – between the male and the female parts,beyond men are from Mars.’
This is actually quite interesting’ says Stephen, looking interested.
‘Well so you should be interested as the other paradox lies in your display of leadership and all that says od heroic models of male leadership. You demonstrate sublime leadership in the conducting of the songs yet you allow and encourage subversion and undermining of yourself at the same time. You Stephen seem to crave control yet you are never really in charge. every time your back is turned then things happen among your merry band of men – they really do. Don’t fence me in was an excellent song to remind us of towards the end – a fine resonance of Dennis Potter and his anti-hero stricken with psoriasis in his hospital bed. the way we are locked in one way of another.
He asks that I write this down for him some time. And so a year of so later I do. But not because he told me so to do. but because to had to be done. I would not want to be seen to be joining the spooky stalkers.
9th October 2012