The String Band Mid-Stream

changing-horses-creationOn one of the furtive escapes into Manhattan I made with my friends Tommy and Jimmy during high school, we were hanging out in Greenwich Village when a Bob-Dylan-wannabe-look-alike on the corner of Bleecker and Macdougall offered us tickets to a lecture that promised a vision of a new church for the twentieth century.  We laughed and said, why not?  And dutifully tramped off at six o’clock that evening to a hall where the Dylan wannabe got up to the podium, introduced himself as Howard, and lectured us for the better part of an hour about thetans and clears and reincarnation.  He then answered a series of penetrating questions from audience members.  We snorted impudently in our seats and whispered among ourselves about whether Howard might have been a cow in a previous lifetime.  The bottom of any credulity fell out with a thud when Howard asked if there were any clears in the audience.  I’m pretty sure Jimmy was about to make a fag joke when all the penetrating questioners in the audience proudly rose to their feet.  That was my introduction to Scientology.

I suspect that it was around the same time that the members of Incredible String Band first encountered Scientology because the effects of their interest surfaced in the fall on 1969 with the release of their fifth album, Changing Horses.  The title no doubt was intended to convey the abandonment of weed for a different form of higher consciousness.  But it also reflected a change in their musical style, for along with Scientology came electric guitars, a change that was much more apparent and appealing.

The Celtic folkiness infused with Mediterranean orientalism that had been a hallmark of the style up to this point gave when to more straightforward psychedelic folk rock on several of the shorter tunes that Robin Williamson wrote for this record, starting right away with “Big Ted,” a song about an ex-pig.  WIth Mike Heron picking up an electric guitar and backed by his girlfriend Rose Simpson on electric bass, Licorice McKechnie took on the acoustic guitar duties to free Robin up to play the washboard.  The song is jug band meets music hall, an elegy for a great old pig who’s “gone like snow on the water,” a lovely image whose wistfulness is rather at odds with the rollicking chorus:

A-Boochy, boochy, boochy, boochy, boochy, boochy, boochy [repeat]
Squidly, squidly, squidly, squidly, squidly, squidly, squidly
A-Boochy, boochy, boochy, boochy, boochy, boochy, boochy
Sham sham sharoo, oh, sham sham sharoo, Big Ted’s sold and gone

Changing horses, indeed.

The influence of Scientology comes through most strongly on “Dust Be Diamonds,” the sole composition in the String Band’s output that is credited to both Heron (music) and Williamson (lyrics).  There’s a slightly goofy chorus where all four voices promises you can be “happy all the time” if “dust be diamonds, water be wine,” sung to the accompaniment of kazoo and way-wah pedal.  The wisdom of Jesus and the Buddha is invoked, along with a Hubbardian determination to put past preoccupations behind and face the future without tears or regrets; it’s all in the positive attitude.

Heron also authored a chorale in four-part harmony, “Sleepers Awake!”  Although it owes nothing but its title to the Bach cantata (“Wachet auf,” BWV 140), Heron does try once more to evoke the religious feeling he experimented with on The Big Huge in “The Mountain of God.”  But here there is no overt Christian message, but rather a pantheistic joy in the glory of nature as revealed in a morning full of bird song and sap rising to “the light’s first ring.”  The same optimism that infused “Dust Be Diamonds is here to from the opening invocation:

Sleepers, awaken! The night has gone and taken,
Your darkest fears and left you here,
And the sun it shines so clear,
And the sun it shines so clear.
Oh wake for the world looks wonderful.

Changing Horses is dominated by two long compositions, one by each of the men, the largest canvases that either had attempted to date, outdistancing even Mike’s grand “A Very Cellular Song” from The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter.  In the middle position on the first side of the album, Heron presents himself both an an archetypal seeker treading a path of sorrow and as the “White Bird” that represents a kind of redemption and release from worldly care.

Structurally, the song is classic ISB.  Mike, as composer and singer, handles the basic guitar duties, while Robin contributes a mix of exotic instruments including flute, sarangi, and “Chinese banjo.”  Rose handles the electric bass chores and does an especially fine job driving the pulsating middle section (where Licorice adds the organ chops) in which the singer chronicles his despair before the dawn.  The chorus is a simple invocation (“White bird of the morning”) that builds from a slow, almost murmured chant to a rousing, banging, sing-along celebration.  For all that, it’s never been one of my favorites in their repertoire; parts are baggy and noodly, and Mike’s done this better both before and after this point.

changing-horses-white-birdThe lyrics to “White Bird” form half of the artwork in the inner sleeve of the album’s fold out cover.  (The other half is a somewhat baggy and noodly watercolor by Robin.)  Five tondos illustrate in a vague sort of chinoiserie the story of the traveler.  They are lovely amateur sketches, and I wouldn’t remark upon them much except that the fourth in the series is special to me.  Capturing the transition from night today, it depicts a crooked tree branch, almost leafless, poised between a full moon high int he sky and a rising sun.  And I know that when Mike painted it, he was thinking back to the opening of The 5000 Spirits and his song “Chinese White”: “The bent twig of darkness grows the petals of the morning.”  Still my favorite single line from a String Band song.

Robin’s magnun opus on Changing Horses remains near the top of my list of all-time favorites: “Creation.”  Textured and incantatory, the song’s multi-movement structure maintains a coherent sound for almost its entire length, disintegrating only at the end into a strange musical-hall coda.  (Lyrically, even that coda maintains the gorgeous imagery that sets “Creation” apart.  There may be kazoos there, but there’s also an amethyst galleon under a bruised sky’s glance.)

In the first movement, Robin recites his poetry over a swaying, chanted melody, rich with percussion.  The lyrics can be intriguing (“Ask anyone, he muttered, as he spat a small, brilliant blue insect whirring into the gauze”) or silly (“I smiled with that gallantly concealed forcel nervousness that has proved that oysters cry”), but they are always sonorous, and ultimately sound means more than sense.  In the second movement, the female deity, recalling “Job’s Tears” on Wee Tam, works through seven days of creation.  These are scarcely the Mosaic days, though, but a Graeco-Roman planetary colorfest:

In the fourth black and white were mingled into quicksilver
And she coloured Mercury
And she made a day of wisdom
And the signs that are placed in the firmament

The third movement is a lively dance for violin and voices, a Celto-Bulgarian scherzo setting for a series of koans.

I am the pebble in your very own eye
I am the sword and your enemy dies.
I am the storm and the hurricane wind
I am the thorn of an unkind friend
I am desire what colour my eyes?
I am Loki wizard of lies
Catch me, find me, see me if you can
I am the guilt of an honest man

A da capo section follows in which the chanting seems to recount a primeval fall that looses humanity on its voyage.  The extended coda in all its honky-tonk glory can call up another ship of fools with its “amethyst galleon out on the rolling sea,” that reminds me a “Maya” from The Big Huge.

Changing Horses, aptly named, is a pivotal moment in the String Band’s history.  Apart from the Scientology, the advent of electric instruments adumbrates the future history of the group.  The atmosphere of childlike wonder, and mystical naiveté begins to recede as the arrangements become more sophisticated.  The duo of Mike and Robin officially becomes a quartet as Rose and Licorice appear on the album’s cover for the first time—and ironically, the cover photograph is by Janet Shankman, whom Robin would marry in a few years, ending his relationship with Licorice at about the same time as Rose would leave the band.  The seeds of change are sown; the silver age is about to give way.


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1 Response to The String Band Mid-Stream

  1. Pingback: In Appreciation: The Incredible String Band | A Lifetime Is Required

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