2. Found Pages, Scrap Paper, Light

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Sean,

I think you’re on to something. Your birddog nose sniffed out the grouse, almost before the hunt began. And yet. Can we distill things further? Can we simmer it down to acids and milky white proteins?

A brief backgrounder on this episode’s material: This song, “A Wild Holy Band,” was written in the bedroom of a middle-aged Scottish musician named Mike Scott, who formed The Waterboys in 1981. While Scott perhaps never attained the golden-god status of some of his fellow storytellers—Nick Cave, Tom Waits, et al—the group’s repertoire is weighty enough to add some heft to any middle-aged fan’s boxed-up record collection.

Scott reportedly told The Believer, who released this track as part of its 2009 music issue—the first time it had ever been heard and the only official release it’s seen—that he wrote it at six in the morning, after flipping through old journals and notebooks.

“To my surprise,” he wrote, “I found the entire first verse intact on the page of a journal. I must have written it some years before, and had only the dimmest memory of it.” So presumably, while the tune’s exact moment of inception is shrouded in mystery even from Scott himself, we have a vision of the songwriter scrawling the second, third, fourth, and fifth verses on found pages and scrap paper in his bedroom, as light filters in through half-closed drapes and turns the air into a sea of swirling motes and notes as he hums a hesitant melody.

This seems the proper atmosphere for a song that follows the arc of the sun in the sky—dragged through the heavens by a chariot, eh?—and also the inevitable arc of a human life. The opening lyrics you quoted, “I was longing to be moved, etc.,” strike me as youthful. Is he yearning for a muse? Or just a catalyst? The event that will give the cameraman the go-ahead to start rolling tape on his young life?

“Yeah, I was ready in my heart / to have my heart invaded / by the fervor of your passion / Yes I came to be persuaded / but when I heard your ragged voice / something switched in my perceptions / and I knew I was the victim / of a beautiful deception / all my voice exacts belief / like a tangled threads unraveled / I walked out stunned and liberated / and so began my travels.”

I picture an adolescent, invited up to the apartment of an older woman, to the astonishment of his peers but armed with a subconscious knowledge that it is nothing more than the fateful encounter of which he’s dreamt. The end result not love or even the pride of a sexual conquest, but the beginning of a journey, one that, we know, leads him on a cold cab ride through jangling forests and to another fateful encounter at a mythological border.

Given the song’s almost lazy instrumentation—Scott recorded it with only a keyboard, guitar, and drum machine—it must be the lyrics that cast its tale in amber, preserving it and simultaneously evoking older fossils. And this is what I wonder: Could it be that—for all his references and all your brilliant, lyrical exegesis—what makes this feel like a classic song is simply that it is a well-told story? Because it’s a song, we analyze it the way we analyze music, but its sonic offering, even the kindest critic will tell you, is bland at best. It isn’t remotely compelling, not like the sparse, exotic iterations throughout Tom Waits’ “Shore Leave,” another story over music.

I suppose an argument could be made for minimalism here, that, like architecture, a capital-‘b’ Ballad’s musical space is at its best when it is not cognitively noticed, but rather felt. Please continue your inquiries, because I like where they are headed, and respond at will to my own musings. Like you, “Venus in a V-neck sweater” to me is worth framing and hanging on a wall. Perhaps next to a red, ruffled shirt.

Keepin’ my eye on the road,

Tim

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3. A Story That Feels Effortless

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