Monday, October 16, 2017

Me and Paul Simon Down in the MRI Scanner

A week ago last Sunday saw me, thanks to our 24/7 National Health Service, spending an hour inside an MRI scanner at a local hospital.  Fans of Industrial Noise music, be advised.  Never mind your Merzbow, your Matmos or your Pan Sonic, MRI scans are the business.  For a start, you are lying in a white plastic tube, with a few dirty grey smears just above your face.  All the alienation you could want.  For each of the several short scans, you get a different noise.  The most prevalent one resembles a road drill, others involve various hideous bleeps and thumps and sort of 1940s/50s alarm siren noises.  Noiseniks, welcome to heaven.

You would of course turn down the offer of protective headphones from a kindly nurse.  You’d want every last decibel, full on.  You’d probably want to sample it and loop it onto a CDR or whatever, but given the powerful magnetic fields being generated, that might not work out too well.

But I’m a wimp, I’m afraid.  I took the earphones.  I was asked what sort of music I’d like to be played through them.  Pop, Rock or Classical?  60s, 70s or 80s?  Dreading the thought of being trapped in the machine for an hour with Englebert, Mungo Jerry or Yazz, I thought as fast as I could and asked:  “Have you got anything sort of quiet and folky?”  At that point in the proceedings, obviously, little did I know how useless an option that would be.

“We have some Simon and Garfunkel,” came the reply.  Not wishing to prolong the proceedings unnecessarily by asking for a run-down of the entire catalogue of available music, I agreed to Paul and Artie.  I mean, they were hardly likely to offer me any John Renbourn, were they?  And besides, I once loved the music of Simon and Garfunkel quite deeply.  Their ‘Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme’ album was amongst the first twenty LPs I ever owned.  Okay, some of it sounds a bit twee to my ears now, but ‘The Dangling Conversation’ still sends a strange shiver down my spine.  ‘You read your Emily Dickinson / and I my Robert Frost / and we mark our place with bookmarkers / and measure what we’ve lost.’  Haunting.  And although the slang has long since been dragged through the mud, ‘The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)’ still cheers my heart.

But with the next album, ‘Bookends’, Paul Simon really upped his game.  I can’t remember the exact chronology but this was the time of Sergeant Pepper and those kind of mini-epic singles like the Stones’ ‘We Love You’, the Yardbirds ‘Happenings Ten Years Time Ago’ or Pink Floyd’s ‘See Emily Play’.  Simon came up with a sequence of singles that were more than a match in terms of both intricate construction and lyrical sophistication: ‘Hazy Shade of Winter’, ‘At the Zoo’, ‘Fakin’ It’ and ‘Mrs Robinson’.  And they were all on one side of ‘Bookends’ whilst the other side featured a suite of superb new songs I can still listen to with absolute enjoyment to this day.

I recently saw a U-Tube clip of David Bowie respectfully performing one of those songs, ‘America’.  He just sat cross legged on the stage playing a small keyboard, with no other accompaniment.  I’ve not been much of a Bowie fan since ‘Hunky Dory’ but I had to admit, in that simple rendition of its wistful, romantic, stirring lyric, he nailed it big time.  Once again: haunting.

So I’m being rolled into the scanner on the stretcher thing, these huge earphones covering my ears, hands on my chest, my belly covered with some sort of plastic rig that will facilitate the scanning process, along with another plate thing under my bum, and I’m thinking ‘What’ll it be?  Which album?’.  I figured the most likely thing would be a best-of compilation.

And there I am, staring up at the grey smears in my tubular tomb-like enclosure and the music starts.  What is it?  It’s ‘Bridge Over Troubled’ bloody ‘Waters’, that’s what it is.

‘Bridge Over Troubled Waters’ was probably my first experience of discovering that even my favourites could well turn out to have feet of clay.  It was presaged by ‘The Boxer’ – a worthy finale to that succession of psychedelia influenced singles mentioned above, but this turned out to be Simon’s last gasp for a long, long time.  Well, for me at least.  The rest of the album was a huge disappointment, pleasantly bland at best, occasionally descending into downright irritating.  There’s probably a story about it somewhere, but I suspect a succumbing on Simon’s part to be more ‘commercial’.

At which he was entirely successful, because if I remember rightly ‘Bridge’ was S&G’s highest selling album.  Which, I guess, is why it was the one I then had to endure.  Fortunately, once the noise started, the earphones proved to have little effect, except perhaps to protect me from the eardrum battering intensity of the MRI machinery.  I’d get to hear a bar or two of ‘Cecilia’ or ‘El Condor Pasa’ from time to time, before the nurse’s voice cut in to tell me the next scan would last for four minutes and the rat-attat-tat, clanging, honging and tweeting would start up again.  All I could hear of S&G in these interludes was the bass-lines, a bit of percussion and occasionally the vaguest hints of the melody.  I retained some hopes I might hear at least some of ‘The Boxer’ but that too was utterly drowned.

Credit is of course due to the NHS.  I am blessed to have such a service to check whether I may or may not be suffering from a medical condition.  I loathe the creeping privatisation that is gradually undermining its structure and effectiveness.  I am profoundly grateful to all the hard working men and women who keep it operating, especially those who more or less saved my life a few years ago.  I am grateful too that they think to provide earphones and music for people going into MRI scanners.  I’m sure 99.5% of us appreciate it. 

As for the other 0.05%, this has to be your big chance.  Go for it, noiseniks!

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