Tomorrow is the birthday of Andy Partridge, the leading light of XTC. There are many songs I might choose to celebrate. I’ve posted earlier this year on “I Bought Myself a Liarbird,” back in January, and “Greenman” in March. Also worked in “I Remember the Sun,” written by Partridge’s bandmate Colin Moulding. And that means I’ve done two XTC songs from 1984 and one from 2000. Guess that means I should do one from the Nineties.
Of course, there’s not too much Nineties XTC to choose from. They were running strong, and consistent from 1977 to 1989, then, for contractual reasons, they took a hiatus after 1992’s Nonsuch, which was a rather strong album. Whether or not it is better than its predecessor, Oranges and Lemons (1989) I’m not really sure. The latter has grown on me a bit, but then I heard it later than Nonsuch. Nonsuch, for me, marks the era when I first acquired a CD player and was one of the contemporary CDs I owned at the time. The album felt “quaint” in some ways and that’s not a put-down. I’ve spoken before of the Olde English qualities I admire in XTC, as well as their overall sophistication. Even some Brian Wilson touches throughout. Yeah, I'd have to say it's one of their best.
Today’s song I chose because it suits my mood. Not abashed, exactly, but certainly not riding a high. “Rook” is a soul-searching song and it also boasts a damn good melody, and the production is straight-forward as befits its sincerity. Often Partridge and company get a bit arcane with the arrangements. So a mostly unadorned piano song, with string colorings, is worth remarking. And anyway this song brings us full circle to another bird song from the man with the bird name.
A rook is much like a raven, and ravens, in Greek myth, are associated with Apollo as birds of prophecy, which explains why the speaker is consulting a rook: “Plans eternal, I know you know so don’t blurt out loud.” I’ve never been much of a superstitious guy so I’m not really sure why this song appeals to me so much. Partridge makes consulting the rook seem not only an act of imagination, of trying to see into the future, or even of trying to understand what the nature of one’s existence is—“If there’s a secret, can I be part of it?”—but also trying to grasp the nature of the rook itself. All such considerations aside, it’s just a great nursery-rhymey kind of song: “Crow, crow spill all you know.”
The question “is that my name on the bell?” can be a little confusing. I suppose when I first heard it I imagined an engraved bell, but what would that mean—other than, perhaps, that he’s asking if he’s the “thee” the “bell tolls for.” Then it hit me: “name on the bell” is an expression for having one’s place of residence identified, in an apartment building, by a tag next to “the bell” or ringer. So, “is that my name on the bell” would be a question about his ultimate residence, perhaps—it might also be a way of asking if he’ll “make it” to that place he hopes to get to.
The long lines of the bridge verses—the ones that don’t begin “rook, rook”—are very stirring in Partridge’s vocal but also feature, first, deeper probing: “Break the code of the whispering chimneys and traffic signs”—all things as signs I am here to read, as Joyce’s Stephen thinks. And the idea of the “semaphore from the washing lines” to one soaring above is wonderful. The next time that musical section comes around, it’s even more affecting as the speaker describes his own flight—mental flight—“my head bursting with knowledge ‘til I wake from the dream.” And then the point of it all: “If I die and I find that I have a soul inside / Promise me that you’ll take it up on its final ride.”
The rook as bearer of the soul after death? Sure, but a raven flying to heaven seems a bit questionable. But maybe not, if it’s seen as a heraldic symbol, a kind of talisman. Not the raven with baleful news as in Poe’s poem, but rather a prophetic messenger able to answer the most basic questions: “Rook, rook, by hook or by crook, I’ll make you tell me what this whole thing’s about.”
It’s a meditative song and for some reason I have a very clear memory of hearing it in the car while driving about one afterschool afternoon in Princeton, somewhat aimlessly, killing time, with Kajsa. Maybe I was struck by the speaker’s effort to probe the future as one does when in such a temporary way of life as grad school. So why not let the rook be an emblem for all that?
Just remembered that back there near the beginning of this series we had some ice cream for crow. So, there's that.