The Jazz Butcher’s Time
Arguably one of the finest concept albums ever made, Frank Sinatra’s September Of My Years is a poignant and heartbreaking meditation on getting older. It’s Sinatra’s own Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man, as the occasion for this record—Sinatra’s imminent fiftieth birthday—was soon to turn the artist himself into a man that was no longer young. The album is a melancholic and windswept look back at the everclear forever days of careless youth, where one lives unconcerned about time, space and eternity. Filled with equal parts triumph and regret, September Of My Years is bittersweet and woebegone, sure, but it also finds Sinatra pretty uneasy about the notion of growing old. Putting it simply, he wasn’t into it at all. Leonard Cohen was four years older than the September-era Sinatra when he wrote “Tower Of Song” and he was far more candid than the Chairman when it came to the changes that were happening both inside and outside of his body:Well, my friends are gone and my hair is grey I ache in the places where I used to play And I’m crazy for love but I’m not coming on I’m just paying my rent every day in the Tower of SongIn his composition, Cohen was keenly aware that things were not as they used to be and he was settling into middle age with both resignation and acceptance. The ladies’ man still had familiar carnal urges, but little energy for all it entailed. It was a way of life whose death he predicted eleven years earlier on an album coincidentally titled Death Of A Ladies’ Man. The Jazz Butcher’s new single “Time” has all the weariness and self-awareness of a Septembering Sinatra and a towering Cohen. Lapping Cohen’s notion that old age was imminent, The Jazz Butcher (the beloved Pat Fish) at sixty-three seemed to feel that what was coming was far more serious than just the uncomfortable press of time. Long past mourning the ubiquity of sensual pleasure, he was aware of something much more acute: human frailty. The ills of the body—its weaknesses and its porous boundaries seemed to be hanging heavy over the Butcher, having beaten cancer a few years earlier. Unfairly, “Time” has ended up being a posthumous single. That the lovely and charming Fish died before his band’s new album The Highest In The Land is slated to hit shelves in February, strikes deep as one of the crueler plot-twists the universe has delivered lately. Fish intended the record to be his valedictory bow but it seems barbarous to actually not have him here to take that bow in real life. But here we are and we’re lucky as hell to get one more album from the King of Northampton and heartbreaking as it is to not be able to raise a glass in front of the man himself, a metaphorical glass in this case will have to do. “Time” is a lyrical suckerpunch given Fish’s recent demise and even a casual attempt at reverse engineering will reveal the lyrics to be decidedly prophetic. In our last conversation Fish seemed comfortably settled about not being the indie rock gunslinger of yesteryear and instead he came across like a distinguished elder statesman—professorial in the most post-punk of ways: erudite, hilarious, reflective, philosophical and a little bit sad. The sadness was hard to pinpoint, but it hovered over our chat like an uninvited guest he’d grown accustomed to sharing space with. While Cohen tells us in “Tower of Song” that he hears Hank Williams “…coughing all night long/100 floors above me/In the Tower of Song,” Fish seems to suggest that’s 99 floors higher than how he hears it. Over a syncopated beat he sings:My hair’s all wrong. My time ain’t long.Fish’s description of himself will likely send you to a dictionary (“Luminous. Leguminous. Salubrious. Lugubrious.”), but definitions aside, this was a self-portrait fashioned with a sword. It’s a man taking stock and poking fun and wondering what in the devil the appeal could ever have been about living a quiet life. The thing about being young is that time seems limitless and endless. But as you get older, you feel the exact opposite. And all that limitlessness and endlessness you realize was a youthful illusion and you’ve been sand in a tipped over hourglass all along. Unapologetically, Fish seems to realize his excesses might very well have hastened the sand’s journey:
Fishy go to heaven, get along, get along.I’ve overdone the underside and now I am undone. There’s no one here to see, though, cos I don’t see anyone.When I first read the lyrics to “Time” I guessed the song was a ballad, but it’s not. It’s a mid-tempo number with a trip-hop backbeat, an upbeat chorus and Max Eider’s guitar winding through it all with delicacy and finesse. Were it a ballad it would be positively wrenching, but Fish’s half rap delivery gives “Time” an unexpected buoyancy. It’s a gleeful look at a life lived exactly the way one wanted it to be lived. And so the repercussions of that life, though unpleasant and unpredictable, were, putting it in transactional terms, well worth it. And probably not that unpredictable at all. “Time” skips away like an undulating epitaph, but were Fish alive, I wonder how it would land. It might read more like a man tempting fate rather than a man in its grasp. Hard to say. What’s easy to say, however, is that “Time” is a killer track; a sly and slithering number that’s got fancier footwork than perhaps fate knows how to deal with. Fish gets that he’s burned himself down to the wick, but he also gets that if he hadn’t, there wouldn’t have been any point in having a wick in the first place. Charming as ever, funny as hell and deeply sentimental, in that last chat we had, I caught The Butcher on a Saturday evening in Northampton and we talked well into the night. His puckish good looks were still there, but instead of being a Casanova of Cocktail, his floppy gray hair and warm smile brought to mind something more emeritus than his past iteration. With a drink in his hand and a lit cigarette in the other, he took a long drag, narrowed his eyes into a gunfighter’s scowl and there in a flash was a quick glimpse of mischief and danger. And then it was gone. Fish is gone now, too, but in death he seems to have achieved something comfortingly celestial. His melodies soar as mightily as ever and the wit and the wisdom of his lyrics serve as a cosmic roadmap which forges a wild and golden path that runs from London to Hamburg to Japan to California and ends on the rainy doorstep of a metaphorical mansion in Northampton. And those lyrics tell the story of a man who lived one hell of a life. And that life was raucous, feral, wild, untethered and uncompromising and it was filled with ghosts and angels and penguins and elephants and trains and girls who kept goldfish and falling in love and getting lost in France and burning through the bluest of conditions. We should all be so lucky.
And if I hadn’t told you that, you never would have known,
Unless I told you secretly when we were all alone.
Things are running slow. Things are running low.
You can have one more but then we gotta go.
One more before the bottle. One more before the mast.
One more shot for Davy Jones, better make it fast.
The Highest in the Land
It's not often that an artist gets to do a Bowie by consciously carving their personal epitaph into the grooves of their final LP. The Highest in the Land is that rarity of an album, and it could not have been made by a more brilliantly poetic and fearlessly sarcastic writer than Pat Fish, also known as The Jazz Butcher.
( www.tapeterecords.de )
( www.tapeterecords.de )
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