Monday, June 24, 2013

Steven Wilson's "Heartattack in a Layby:" Shades of Raymond Carver

When I was a kid, I was treated to more types of music than most. My father, a composer/arranger/trumpet-player and my mom, a singer, were both aficionados of American musical theater, so I had a good dose of Rogers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Lowe, etc. (I liked  the music, not so much the shows. I still think Richard Rogers is one of the purest writers of melody in the history of music.) But what really grabbed me as a budding young composer/musician was French Impressionism, introduced to me by my dad. I ate, slept and breathed Ravel and Debussy for a large part of my adolescence.

At the same time, I was a writer, and I progressed from fantasy literature through realism, finally arriving at a real love and respect for American fiction. To this day, I think the fiction of Steinbeck, Andersen, John Updike and Raymond Carver -- especially Carver and Steinbeck -- is the greatest stuff ever written. But I have believed, for years, that no one has ever captured the excruciating drama of suburban existence like Raymond Carver.

In stories like "Cathedral" and "A Small, Good Thing," Carver captures reality and exposes its bare nerve ends to the cold air of truth. No writer has ever left me more chin-dropped than he.

As a natural extension of my exposure to French Impressionism, especially for a young drummer, I moved through a period of progressive or "art" rock, with the like of Yes, Genesis and Rush. Let's face it: these guys were doing with rock what Ravel and Debussy were doing with orchestral music -- painting long instrumental pictures. (No, I'm not comparing the quality of their composition with the two French greats -- that would be silly -- but their music is still exciting and ambitious.)

You might wonder where I am going with this. I don't blame you. Here it is:

Recently, I have discovered the music of one of my nearly exact contemporaries; a British composer/singer named Steven Wilson. He is known, primarily, for his work with Porcupine Tree, a kind of neo-progressive band. He writes "album-oriented" music, which is something I have always admired. (If songs on an album are not part of a bigger idea, why make it an album?) In his work, there are shades of the old Genesis/Yes stuff and it is these characteristics that originally attracted me to his work. We see eye-to-eye, where music is concerned, I think.

Recently, I got the Porcupine Tree album In Absentia. It is an outstanding piece of work, all-around. But the track "Heartattack in a Layby" is, simply, as outstanding a work of art as I have ever seen. In fact, I would call it the perfect example of balanced emotion in art -- the line between emotion and intellectualism is perfectly struck and there is no trace of sentimentality, whatsoever, in it. It brought me to tears through the sheer profundity of its intricate simplicity. The music is outstanding, but the lyrics immediately put me in mind of Raymond Carver.

Our "speaker" is in the midst of his daily life, dealing with the stresses we all endure, and he decides to pull over because he doesn't fell too well. I'll let the rest speak to you, but, in my opinion, the way the story unfolds is heart-breakingly powerful -- a Carveresque look at working-class circumstance, familiar love and fate (that life-altering pest to beggers, brokers and kings). The video I chose is fan-made, but its benefit is the graphic presentation of the lyrics. I hope you find it as moving as I did. Let me know what you think.

If you would like to explore Wilson's work further, I suggest checking out his solo album, The Raven that Refused to Sing (and Other Stories). Here's the opening track, "Luminol," live. Every track on that one is outstanding, but I particularly like "Drive Home" and the title track.

Also check out this -- Wilson's lament for the slow death of modern music. Perfect in its lyrical point (music is losing its integrity and heart) but underscored with the assertion that music doesn't have to be inaccessible to be good. The "hook" is fantastic: "The Sound of Muzak."

...just a few samples.


  1. The Carver story I particularly love is Boxes. I wish I had a copy. I have no idea where I read it but at the time it seemed as close to a perfect short story as I'd ever seen. There was the whole fascinating thing about his ruthless editor a few years ago too.

    1. I seem to have stolen your wording! I could at least have used 'uncompromising' instead of 'ruthless'.

      Oh well. Imitation, they say is... etc.

    2. Zoe -- I remember "Boxes." That and "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" made a big impression. I gave my Carver collection to an aspiring writer as a graduation gift some years ago. If I find a copy of the story, I will be sure to get it to you in some form... I need to restock my Carver anyway.

  2. The song is exactly as you describe. Beautifully done. I agree with zmkc about Carver. I have no idea where and when I came across him first but his stories are wonderful, in that ruthless way of his.

    I love the way you've brought them together. That was very skilful.

    1. Thank you, Denis -- thanks very much, as well, for visiting. As a (sadly) unknown fictionm writer,I have to say that Carver was my biggest influence. He convinced a sci-fi/fantasy-loving teenager that the "real world" is as or more interesting. He was a true master.

      Thanks again for commenting.