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November 7, 2016

Book Notes - Rob Cowen "Common Ground"

Common Ground

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Rob Cowen's Common Ground is an innovatively told memoir that blends the personal with the natural.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"In beautifully written and evocative prose, English nature writer Cowen explores the relationship between humans and nature, making it abundantly clear that nature is where you find it. His subject is ostensibly a single square mile of waste land on the edge of Bilton, a small town in northern England. . . . He masterfully describes this place of beauty and garbage, a place filled with wildlife and the smells and sounds of the encroaching town. But he does much more than superbly describe the transformation of the seasons over the course of a single year. In discussing the changes the land and its inhabitants have experienced over hundreds of generations, Cowen brings the lives of individuals into sharp and poignant focus. . . . He captivatingly blends science, politics, and poetry. . . . Cowen shows how to find joy and awe in the quotidian while cogitating on the world we will leave the next generation."

In his own words, here is Rob Cowen's Book Notes music playlist for his memoir Common Ground:

I’m not sure Common Ground could’ve even been conceived without music, let alone written. Music was there in me and in my words from the start. My first memory is of standing on a kitchen chair at three-years-old, singing along to the whole of Sgt Pepper on a blinding English summer day, dizzied – even then – by its mad narratives and textures, its alchemy and aural brilliance, the way it bounced and flew between worlds like a butterfly between flowers. I felt the same when going through any of my dad’s records, and putting the needle down: Darkness On The Edge Of Town; Between the Buttons; Blonde on Blonde; Unhalfbricking; Hark, The Village Wait. These records were like portals that led from our living room floor in Northern England to myriad places and possibilities. They existed in a space outside of time, like scenes you could crawl into and lose yourself. When you came back, everything felt a little different for a while.

Around the time I was discovering those records I began trying the magic myself. I put pen to paper, writing lyrics for bands I was playing in. Bad stuff in hindsight, I’m sure, but it was a good schooling, forcing me to try to learn what makes a line spark, shine and sear itself into the mind. I found stuff that knocked me sideways when I read it: Ted Hughes, Tony Harrison, Jim Harrison, Phillip Larkin, Seamus Heaney, T.S Eliot. And from there it was further paths into literature and prose. I remember too the first time I picked up my dad’s 1967 first edition copy of J.A Baker’s The Peregrine. It was like listening to Pepper for the first time, a record – coincidentally – released the same year. I knew things would never be the same again.

I listened to music constantly when writing Common Ground. This was partly because there was a new baby in our house, making loud songs through my headphones essential to any kind of concentration, but also partly because of what the music did to me. It set a tone or a scene, turning something in my mind into three-dimensions. I’d be sitting there reading my notes and scribbles and wondering how the hell to begin the enormity of chiseling it down, of pulling focus and foreshortening, of condensing and clarifying into something that got across the truth of the place, the reality of being there. Then something as simple as a song’s intro starting would trigger it: an emotion, a word, a memory. Boom. Here was a path. And I was away, through the portal again – only this time when I came back, removing the headphones in the wee hours, I usually had a written page too.

Here are a just few of the songs that wove themselves into the fabric of the book.

1. John Martyn: “Parcels”
Something about the plucked guitar, harmonics and that haunting piano in this song always sets a scene for me. It’s a hair-raising soundscape. Like walking into strange wood. It suggests possibilities and horizons. In fact, this song was played the most when writing the book, sometimes on repeat for hours. I’m not sure I know why. It’s oddly comforting and weirdly eerie too. Like all John Martyn’s best songs, it’s as much mood as lyrics, but there’s a simplicity to his voice and words too: “Take your sadness, make it mine…”

2. Arcade Fire: “Suburban War”
What an opening line: “Let’s go for a drive, and see the town tonight. There’s nothing to do, but I don’t mind when I’m with you.” Part of Common Ground is the recording and kaleidoscopic delving into a patch of edge-land, a bastard patch of marginal waste ground on the outskirts of the suburbs, and no-one writes about such edges in modern music like Arcade Fire. It’s a song about memory and change and how that plays out in one place. The opening twelve-string guitar could be the noise of the pylons in the wind or the whistling melody of streets at night.

3. Michael Chapman: “Rabbit Hills”
A fellow Yorkshireman like me, Chapman is relatively uncelebrated but he was a seminal figure on the British folk-rock scene in the late 1960s. And he’s brilliant. In fact, this album – ‘Fully Qualified Survivor’ – was one of the first to feature Mick Ronson on guitar, the man would become Bowie’s guitarist foil on some of the world’s best-known songs. I love the wistfulness of this song, the chord progression and its attachment to place. Rabbit Hills is named after and set in a place near Scarborough on the Yorkshire coast. Again, a weird marginal land.

4. George Harrison: “All Things Must Pass”
I’m not sure I can even begin to fairly describe the genius of George. I listened to his ‘All Things Must Pass’ album religiously during the writing of the book, and would have included any one of a string of incredible songs off it here: ‘Run of the Mill’, ‘Isn’t It A Pity’, ‘Ballad of Frankie Crisp’, ‘Hear Me Lord’, ‘Beware of Darkness’. I chose the title track as it is one of the finest evocations of nature and the natural world on record. I adore the way he holds up the natural transitions and changes as a mirror on which to see and understand the cycles of our lives more clearly.

5. Bruce Springsteen: “Something In The Night”
I suspect that anyone who says they don’t like Bruce Springsteen struggles to enjoy any great literature. You listen to those early records and they’re like novels. It’s a thin line between Darkness On The Edge of Town and Cormac McCarthy; Bruce writes stories with often-simultaneous crushing human insight, hope, tenderness and eye for heartbreak. In this song, he inhabits the character completely. I love its tones and coldness, its bleak repeat, its attempt to get at that thing lurking at the edges.

6. The Beatles: “Within You, Without You”
I’ve always been a Lennon nut since childhood, but it’s George who makes it here again. I include this purely for the finest philosophical awareness ever consigned to a pop record: “When you’ve seen beyond yourself, you may find peace of mind is waiting there. And the time will come when you see we’re all one, and life flows on within you and without you.”

7. Steeleye Span: “Dark-Eyed Sailor”
The eeriness of the English landscape can’t be overemphasized. Pretty it may be, but look closer and every square of soil is deep with layers and lives vanished and gone. It’s ghostly and dark. The earth here is a repository of memory. Folk music, recovered, recorded and kept alive by pioneers throughout the late nineteenth-century captures many of hundreds of years of such experience - the rural and the working lives; the colloquial, the tragic and the tales passed down for countless generations. This classic death-and-return ballad is so beautifully composed and sung here by Gay Woods that when I hear it, the layers seem to fold up and fly away: you’re immediately in a place you’ve never been but you seem to have known forever. It’s like the sound of England’s earth distilled to me; wherever I listen to it, I’m home. And that end line kills me every time: “For a cloudy morning brings in a sunny day.”

8. Tom Waits: “Ruby’s Arms”
Ah, Tom. I use his albums like I use great literature – it inspires and sets the mood to start hitting letters. It’s like a shot of pure truth. It charms you while robbing you of everything you’ve got. You can’t help but listen, then you finish the album and realise your emotions are as raw as sushi. He’s one of the great American outsiders and outliers; he’s an edge-land, part-man, part-nature. Part-junkyard barfly poet, part-wind through a cornfield. From “Kentucky Avenue” to “The House Where Nobody Lives” he does it every time. “Ruby’s Arms” gets it because of the confessional aspect. Something ending, but life still going on and the space between these two things that we’re forced to live in.

9. Martin Simpson: “Never Any Good”
This is the song that makes up the epigraph of Common Ground and details a man’s complex, confessional and loving relationship with his father. It fit perfectly in the story after the revelation of my son being born, and captures all the hopes and fears that experience suddenly brings about being a good man, and a good father. And how the definitions of those things can sometimes be the opposite of what we imagine. I actually had the idea of writing the final chapter thirty years in the future with my son visiting the edge-land I inhabited after it has been built over and is gone, but after this came on my iPod while I was writing, I realised Martin had all I wanted to say down. He’s a stunning writer, so I just lifted it. I’m now actually working with Martin and the awesome singer and fiddle player Nancy Kerr to bring Common Ground to life as a show involving their songs and readings.

10. Bob Dylan: “Visions Of Johanna”
This playlist cannot exist without the man who’s navigated me through more writing hours than anyone. I pick this song not because I listen to it most (although it’s a contender with “I Was Young When I Left Home”), but because what he does on Blonde on Blonde is so extraordinary and brave and fresh that it compels you to write bravely, to be unafraid of what anyone thinks. And the lyrics on this record are untouchable. He writes scenes that fire and burn, even if nothing happens. There’s always what’s not being said; it’s never on the nose. One sentence carries with it a thousand-page story, if you know how to hear it. It’s something I’ve always tried to do too, to create that depth. “The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face, where these visions of Johanna have now taken my place.”

11. Mike Oldfield: “Tubular Bells – Part II”
I actually quote a section of this in the book, because near the beginning it has these amazing arpeggios and harmonics that sound like the tweets, chirps, buzzes and melodies of a high summer day in the wildflower meadow of the edge-land. Everyone knows the famous into to the first part of Oldfield’s masterpiece, but Part II has some truly outstanding moments, and for my money 1:27 to 5:27 is as close to the sound of English fields in balmy July as you’ll find. Beautiful, haunting, wistful. It almost makes me cry every time. I listened to that section on repeat for days when writing the book.

12. Sandy Denny: “Who Knows Where The Time Goes”
If you could distill an evening into a song, this is it. I first heard this as a kid, but it’s this recording (which I think was done for John Peel show in the early 70s) that really breaks me. Dreamy, resigned, defiant, misty-eyed, Denny sings unbelievably brilliantly about time, passing time and the changes of the world. That opening line could be the first sentence of a book: “Across the evening sky/all the birds are leaving/but how can they know it’s time for them to go?” Again, it’s the sound of looking out over a wood at sunset as the birds flare up and flock, coalesce and disperse, and wondering about the spinning world and life. It’s perspective and awareness you rarely find.

Rob Cowen and Common Ground links:

Financial Times review
Guardian review
Kirkus review review
Publishers Weekly review

Harrogate Advertiser profile of the author
Unofficial Britain interview with the author

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