Tuesday, January 7, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 7):"WHO KNOWS WHERE THE TIME GOES" (1969) Fairport Convention

Yesterday was the birthday of Sandy Denny (born Alexandra Elene Maclean Denny in 1947).  If you know nothing else about or by Sandy Denny, you should know this song, recorded by her while with the band Fairport Convention for their third LP, Unhalfbricking (1969), the second FC LP on which Denny appeared. There followed a third, the best-known: Liege and Lief (1969).  Denny with FC released 3 LPs in 1969 which makes them one of the key players in that important year for the fortunes of Sixties rock. FC, inspired largely by Denny, gave birth to a rather different form of “folk rock” than is associated with The Byrds in the U.S. British folk rock relies much more on traditional balladry and an olde English aura that might seem hokey to some (particularly if you’ve seen one too many Renaissance faires) but which, when done well as FC did, is, for me, full of deep associations.  It’s in me blood.

It took me awhile to get around to it though, and to FC in general. Back in my teens, in the mid-to-late Seventies, the FM radio in Philly still played FC’s “Tam Lin” fairly frequently. I think they liked it because it was about witchcraft and Halloween and a child born out of wedlock; who could resist a line like “and if she should turn me in your arms into a naked knight”?  Anyway, I knew the song but didn’t seek out more FC until … 

In the early Eighties, Richard Thompson, the former guitarist for FC, ended his collaboration with his wife Linda with the bristling brilliance of Shoot Out the Lights (1982) and then began a solo career with Hand of Kindness (1983). I started listening to him and his next two LPs and so, around 1986, picked up Chronicle, a compendium of tracks from Fairport Convention LPs and other related projects. That’s when I encountered this song, written by Denny before she joined FC and the title song on an album by Judy Collins in 1968 (I may have heard that version earlier, somewhere along the way). It remains my favorite FC track. It’s not just Denny’s wonderful vocal, but also Thompson’s guitar accompaniment. The man is one of the leading lights of British guitar playing, a treasure.

Denny, Thompson, Iain Matthews

The song is full of melancholy—it’s about changing seasons, and the other changes time brings—but it’s also full of resignation, and even finds a restrained transcendence. “Who knows where the time goes?” is itself a lyrical question, with internal rhyme, and is, as it were, almost a koan. It’s an imponderable. Does time “go” anywhere? No, and yet that moment just there—did you notice?—isn’t there any more. We may say this is an illusion due to the fact that we are temporal beings and that “in fact” there is a kind of eternity outside of this crummy little space/time physics biological beings are stuck in, and the song does suggest that, in the end, with its lovely “I have no fear of time.”  It’s the culmination of a triple assertion: “I have no thought of time”—unlike the birds who leave when summer ends; “I do not count the time”—unlike the people who leave the beach when winter comes; and then “I have no fear” because the birds of spring return. It’s cyclical, you see, with a bit of “world without end,” if you’re so inclined.

It’s a song that acts as a meditation. Having introduced this question about time, the song can’t actually answer it, and yet it can come to a position on the subject. In the last verse, my love is near me: “I know it will be so / Until it’s time to go”—a very clear take on the feeling of a “now” that is forever, but.  Sooner or later, we all must go. And that’s what makes that cyclical thought so consoling; it’s not from any individual perspective: “So count the storms of winter / And then the birds in spring again,” bringing back the notion of “counting,” key to the phobia of time (the old measure—“how many winters” have you seen/endured), but now—because she’s past it, you see—no fear of time.

And Sandy is past it. She died in 1978 after her career began to take a turn to the has-been and her life to the disordered. This kind of music had its heyday in 1969 and helped spawn a wave of music—including Denny’s duet with Robert Plant on “The Battle of Evermore” on Led Zeppelin’s epic fourth LP (1971)—that had expired by 1976.
John Bonham, Robert Plant, Denny, Jimmy Page
Having no fear of time and not counting it and all that is one thing—something poets can do and have always done—but time goes on anyway and “fashion” affects pop music even more than it affects the writing of poetry. Though Denny’s death was a shame, I’m glad, in a way, that we never had to see her in a shag cut trying desperately to match her lovely voice to some kind of disco beat like every other chanteuse of the time. To alter Byron: “Since earthly ear but ill can bear / To trace the change to foul from fair.

Which leaves me to expound upon what I consider one of the most beautiful, lyrical moments in this beautiful, lyrical song: Denny’s delivery of the line quoted above: “So count the storms of winter /And then the birds in spring again” (beat) “I have no fear of time”—then “big finish” simply because the final repetition of the chorus lets Denny alter the words with an emphasis: “for who knows how my love grows and who knows . . . .”

I used to think that was a cheat, y’know, like the happy ending of Hollywood romantic movies that takes over from the “happily ever after” of fairy tales. Who cares how your love grows, time’s gonna put an end to you, kid. And yet. Time put an end to the biological being known as Sandy Denny before I ever heard this song. And here we are, more than three decades and a half since her death, thinking about her and her song. Who knows how it grows, or where it goes.


Andrew Shields said...

I knew the Judy Collins version because my parents had the record (though we listened to "In My Life" a lot more, as it was on the other side of a tape with "Peter Paul and Mommy," our favourite record to listen to while driving).

It's a great song. My favorite on "Unhalfbricking," though, is "Genesis Hall." I heard RT play it solo in Ann Arbor in the summer of 88. Brilliant.

Donald Brown said...

Yeah, "Genesis Hall" is great early Thompson ("and he'll drink til his eyes are red with hate for those of a different kind") and I can see how it would appeal more to a guitar guy.

My favorite Thompson FC song is "Crazy Man Michael."