It’s time for the annual end-of-year musings known in these parts as Shadows and Reflections. Since so many of our lives were lived in thematic overlap this year, we’ve asked our contributors and friends to focus on the small, strange and specific as they look back over the last 12 months. Today it’s the turn of Benjamin Myers.
Inner sleeve of Graham Bond’s ‘Holy Magick‘
Stories have a way of seeking you out. As with the discovery of music, or films, or people, or anything that enriches this short mad thing called life, I’ve always believed you just need to have your radar polished and primed to receive new things at all times. Tilt towards them and the stories will come.
The lives of two people have piqued my interest this year and sent me off on journeys of discovery when I might otherwise have been preoccupied with more distracting concerns.
Chancing upon the documentary Everybody’s Everything on Netflix introduced me to the life of the late rapper Lil Peep, a young man whose music was probably not intended for forty-something daydreamers in Yorkshire. Yet for reasons I have still not yet full fathomed, his story resonated deeply with me this year.
Was it because Lil Peep made rap music that was a world away from the slick titans of the genre – your Kendricks and your Kanyes – and instead favoured lo-fi throwaway-sounding songs that could be cut and uploaded to Soundcloud for free in a matter of hours, thereby aligning him with the DIY ethics of punk/post-punk/hardcore that I’m so familiar with? Almost certainly. Was it because his alarming facial tattoos represented a lifetime commitment to outsider art while his heavy drug and anxious interviews seemed to speak for a wider spiritual emptiness at the heart of a young generation coming of age in Trump-era America? Yes, that too. Certainly he reminded me of those many musicians who had gone before, whose lives seemed to have a crude limit, but who showered brief but bright sparks upon the world: not just Jimi and Janis and Jim but also Sid Vicious, Darby Crash, Kurt Cobain, Tupac Shakur, Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Amy Winehouse.
And was it because Lil Peep was from a decent home, whose mother and grandfather had academic backgrounds, was playful and goofy and good-looking, yet also remarked that he intended to destroy the music business and capitalism, and bring all his friends with him along for the ride? Yes, it was this too.
My interest in Peep’s music became secondary to his story, because a lot of it was pretty awful. During twenty years writing for Melody Maker, NME, Mojo etc, I was always more interested in the people than their art, and childhood always more noteworthy than guitar pedals, though my repeat plays of his single ‘Witchblades’ – a woozy, emo-leaning cocaine comedown of a song – will forever be associated with those early pandemic lockdown days of spring 2020. His was a life lived online, via social media, and I would predict with some degree of confidence that he would have been headlining festivals by now, one of the biggest pop stars in the world.
The final scenes of the Lil Peep documentary, in which his pale form sits dead on his tour bus, head tilted back, mouth gaping, just hours after live-streaming on Instagram, his laughing friends thinking he is just taking a power-nap, is one of the most moving and horrific cinematic scenes in recent times.
And still it keeps coming back to the people, to their stories.
A few years back after watching the documentary about Ginger Baker, I was struck by the music of Graham Bond, and specifically the dark rumours of occultist dabblings that always surrounded him. Soon afterwards I picked up a copy of Harry Shapiro’s 1991 biography Graham Bond: The Mighty Shadow, from the legendry Sid Jones, former owner of Muse Music in Hebden Bridge. Copies go for upwards of two hundred quid, but in true passing-the-torch style Sid sold it to me for £2.
Bond lead several bands and could blow the sax and play the keys at the same time, often while smacked out of his gourd. He was also another doomed figure, perennially cast in life’s play as second fiddle to friends who would go on to greater success (the aforementioned Baker and Jack Bruce in Cream being the obvious example). His career sat at the intersection between the fertile 50s jazz and blues underground, burgeoning psyche, soul and swinging 60s pop and, it would turn out, the fried and nihilistic years of the early 1970s.
That Bond was portly, greasy-looking and – let’s face it – not sexy in a business whose number one promise is sex, didn’t help, nor did his reputation for being volatile and difficult. As Harry Shapiro outlines, his fascination with black magic sent him down a psychological route that would prove to be his undoing. He died in 1974, almost certainly by suicide, by leaping under a tube train at Finsbury Park at the age of 34. There is an even darker coda to his story which I won’t explore here, because 2020 has been anxious enough thank you very much.
But Bond also left behind a rich legacy, and this year I became obsessed with his overlooked 1970 album Holy Magick, a free-wheeling collection of wailing spiritual jazz incantations complete with Crowley-esque nonsense spells delivered by an untrained but sometimes brilliant voice. Some jams are twenty-plus minutes in length while others, such as ‘The Magician’, fit the pop format. It was largely panned or ignored by critics and one more commercial failure for Bond, but to these 2020 ears it stands up beside anything Dr John or Fela Kuti produced at the time.
This year while chopping logs in the garden or submerging myself in hill-top reservoirs and abandoned mill ponds, or writing my way out from beneath the small landslides of uncertainty — or just taking long drives through empty spaces (music always sounds its best in moving cars) — the stories and music of Lil Peep and Graham Bond have accompanied me. They have nourished the uncertain moments, soundtracked the absurdity.
And that, surely, is art’s function. In a year defined by despair and division and science and rancour and death, art has shone through. I believe it always will.
The Offing by Benjamin Myers is out now on Bloomsbury. His new book Male Tears, a collection of short stories, will be published in April 2021.