The Good Son – She is Not

‘Singular, unique’

It was on 18 February 2003 that Derek Bailey entered the Moat recording studios in London’s North Kensington to record a session of solo acoustic and electric guitar at the invitation of David Sylvian. ‘I spoke to him for about fifteen minutes on the phone after which he was onboard,’ remembered Sylvian. ‘I told him I wanted to be challenged as a vocalist and he said, “that I can do for you”.’ (2011)

Moat was run by Toby Hrycek-Robinson and it was he who would oversee and engineer the recording that day. Sylvian himself was not present. It was a studio familiar to Bailey with Hrycek-Robinson a trusted counterparty in the control room. A year previously, on 1 February 2002, the guitarist had entered the same studio with the same engineer to lay down his now-classic album Ballads. Recorded in a single day, Ballads would deepen an appreciation that Sylvian had held for Bailey’s improvisation stretching back to the discovery of the latter’s album Aida in the early ’80s. (See ‘How Little We Need to be Happy’). 

What nobody knew when Bailey responded to Sylvian’s request was that his health would soon be afflicted, first by carpal tunnel syndrome that would impede his playing technique and then by the motor neurone disease which would sadly lead to his death on Christmas Day 2005.

‘In more than thirty years of recording music, I have never met anyone with Derek’s charm, elegance and flair – as a performer and a person,’ was Toby Hrycek-Robinson’s tribute. ‘Most people who heard him play were changed by the experience. My wife Kasia, having previously never heard a note of improvisation, beamed for days after hearing Derek play for the first time. She couldn’t explain why. She simply felt uplifted.

‘Work would invariably stop in our studios when Derek came to the Moat to record. Musicians of every genre would drop by from other rooms – initially to sneak a quick listen, mostly to end up staying all day. Derek had the great gift of making what can be an impenetrable form of music readily accessible to anyone with even half an ear open to something new. But more than the enjoyment I got from recording Derek’s music over many years is my pleasure in the man himself. Erudite, witty and plain-speaking, yet equally instinctive and profound, Derek was someone who never failed to delight me with his presence.’

‘how little we need to be happy’ from David Sylvian’s instagram
Derek Bailey playing at Tonic in New York City on 21 December 2001, video & audio by Robert O’Haire at Straw2gold Pictures. The 13-minute performance gives us the opportunity to see the guitarist in action just prior to recording of Ballads and subsequently the Blemish sessions.

Sylvian would go on to respond to three of Bailey’s pieces in his own spirit of improvisation. ‘It was part of a personal evolution whose time had come, where things would shift for me in a quietly dramatic way,’ he explained. ‘I knew Derek bore some relation to the material because his was the only music I could listen to leading up to the recording itself. At that time I didn’t know how I was going to approach the work or what it might sound like, so it was not a conscious absorbing of his influence or anything obvious of that nature. It was simply an intuited connection. Two thirds of the way into recording Blemish I felt I needed a counterpoint to my own approach to guitar improvisation and Derek was the first to come to mind. No one else was considered.’ (2010)

‘Now, it’s still not improvisation in the pure sense. We’re not sitting in a room together performing. He recorded in London and sent the tapes to me here [in the US]. I listened to the session one time and singled out a few pieces. And then, the second time I heard the pieces, I scribbled down lyrics and melody and then went for it on the third run-through. That’s as close as I can come to it – especially as a lyricist. I have trouble with the whole scat vocalist thing. Forget it!’ (2003)

‘The sessions themselves weren’t that dissimilar from the earlier miniatures I’d recorded with Frisell for example [Dobro pieces included on Dead Bees on a Cake and Everything and Nothing]. The main difference was the speed with which they were executed. No sooner had I scratched out a lyric and melody than they were being recorded courtesy of having my own work space. I enjoyed the rapidity and immediacy of the process, performing the material while it was still in the process of evolving. This increased its sense of urgency to my mind and gave the entire work an edge.’

There was a keen sense of excitement at this evolution of approach. ‘It was the closest I could come to a form of improvisation as a lyricist or a vocalist. It’s like you’re right in the process, the ink is still wet on the paper, and the rest is like, “OK, have faith, see where it leads you,” – there’s a beauty to that.’ (2004)

What emerged on Blemish was a relatively small proportion of Bailey’s February 2003 session at Moat. However, Sylvian recognised the value in all that he heard, subsequently releasing most of what Bailey performed that day on his samadhisound label in 2006 as To Play: The Blemish Sessions.

‘I’d always felt the performances were very strong on that session,’ said Sylvian in the release notes, ‘and it’d been my intention to return to the material when time allowed to review it and send the results to Derek for his opinion with a view to releasing it. I’d starting listening to the material towards the end of last year unaware of the seriousness of Derek’s illness. Consequently he passed away without ever hearing the result of his work.

‘As fate would have it this was to be the last solo studio session Derek was to record before the onset of illness. That might make the session valuable in itself but it’s the quality of the work that’s outstanding.  The conversational quality, the apparent ease of facility in that ongoing search for what remains elusive. You witness up close the struggle and fluency, frustration and facility. It’s an intriguing dichotomy illustrated so beautifully on this recording. I’m reminded of the title of that Bill Evans recording Conversations with Myself. This is an external manifestation of one man’s internal dialogue. A struggle for eloquence using all the considerable skills at his disposal. Always attempting to push beyond the confines of the vocabulary, even one self-invented for this very purpose. That quixotic mission necessarily accompanied by plenty of humour and self-deprecation. A means of getting oneself out of the way, of not taking oneself too seriously but dedication to the process for its own sake perhaps?’

‘Not taking oneself too seriously…’ Bailey pictured on the digipack of To Play: The Blemish Sessions, a selection of joke-shop prank toys pinned to the board behind him.

The samadhisound website informed us that To Play’s title was suggested by writer/musician and long-time friend of Bailey’s, David Toop, after hearing the work which he placed among his favourite solo recordings of the artist. Toop was quoted: ‘After my last face to face conversation with Derek, I was so struck by his emphasis on “just playing” as a deep philosophy at the core of his work, and some of the anecdotes of his early life, that I thought of writing a stage play. My idea was that Derek would play within the play. I suggested this to him and he seemed agreeable, at least. The idea came to nothing, partly because of other commitments and partly because I don’t have a great love for most theatre and so couldn’t seem to get started on it, but I still like this word “Play” (much Beckett in there) in relation to Derek’s activity.’

As ‘The Good Son’ begins we hear Bailey speaking, a fragment of an aside referencing the fact that he is recording with the intention of his music being accompanied by a vocal. It’s most likely an exchange with Hrycek-Robinson in the control room. Similar snatched conversations crop up on To Play: The Blemish Sessions, for instance at the end of ‘Play 2’ when the track comes to an abrupt halt as the guitarist drops his plectrum. ‘Unfortunate ending!’ he exclaims. ‘I’ll carry on a bit, ok?’ Then later, ‘I’ll try the electric,’ as he switches instruments, and finally – as the disc closes – a matter-of-fact ‘that’s it’. The presence of Derek’s voice injects something of the spirit of the man into the recording and I remember being deeply touched at hearing the unpretentious humanity in these moments so soon after his passing.

Sylvian did admit that ‘there were a number of pieces recorded for me which were just off the scale, I couldn’t possibly respond to them as a vocalist.’ In others, however, it’s as if the music breathes in the space left to accommodate his voice. ‘Play 1’ and ‘Play 3’ are tracks I like to interlace with the ‘The Good Son’ and ‘She is Not’, placing Sylvian’s completed work within the context of what Bailey delivered in anticipation of his collaborator’s contribution.

The lyric of ‘The Good Son’ is an intriguing one. As listeners we are immediately disorientated since we have no idea who the ‘you’ and ‘he’ of the opening lines might refer to, it’s as if we are thrust into a situation and left grappling for context.

‘You know he’ll take you
But not too far’

Blemish was borne on a tide of emotions sparked by the crisis in the song-writer’s relationship with his wife. Interesting then that events are articulated here not in terms of what is happening between husband and wife but with the focus on the unbreakable blood-line bonds between parent and son. I guess anyone who has been through a break-up will have experienced how it’s not only the relationship with a spouse or partner that is thrown into chaos. Suddenly relationships with parents, siblings and children are cast in a new light as circumstances are redrawn around a sudden dislocation in what once seemed stable.

‘He tells himself it’s too far to come
To redefine his aspirations to be
The good son’

The character of ‘The Good Son’ could be Sylvian himself, a foil to ‘The Only Daughter’ of the track that follows, the two pitted against one another in the title of the subsequent album of remixes The Good Son vs The Only Daughter. The lyric may even hint to being the first-born…

‘Always first in line
Second to none’

It feels like an invasion of privacy to speculate too far and the power of the lyric is as much in the form of expression as in the specific meaning. Perhaps it’s best regarded as a portrait of a state of mind rather than of a specific individual. Words were written quickly in response to Bailey’s playing and have the feeling of an overflowing stream of thoughts and emotions.

‘He left room for me in that improvisation and it was that kind of consideration that gave me a foothold and allowed me into his world to respond to him as a vocalist…There was a very strange marriage made between my contribution and Derek’s original performance. Somehow it works.

‘Everything had to come from Derek’s improvisation for me. There was a spark: it could be a chord, it could be a two note phrase and that leads me on. I can take that and extend upon that and resolve it into the next phrase that Derek played. It was an interesting challenge but it was very intuitive, it was an immediate response. It wasn’t an analytical approach or a cerebral approach, it was very intuitive.

‘What was wonderful about Derek’s performance is that he never let me become comfortable with where I was leading with the melody. There would always be an interruption or a change of direction and I’d have to go with him and yet make sense of where I was heading lyrically and melodically, and that was a very interesting challenge to deal with.’

Sylvian followed his gut with words as with music. ‘Whatever seemed to surface at the time, I would follow it and take it to its ultimate course. I didn’t always understand what was surfacing as it surfaced. I was intrigued by it and just went with it and pursued it.’

There is reference to a ring, no doubt specifically to a precious item once exchanged between a couple as pledges were made that are now being blown apart. Perhaps too it is a reference to an heirloom passed from one generation to another:

‘So take this ring and pass it on’

A conversation is dwelt upon after the event:

‘“Don’t try to make sense of it,” she said
“It’s all that you can do to balance up the books for him and you”’

Turn of phrase is at times startling. There is the undisguised anger and bitterness of ‘there’s always stories riddled with lies’. And whilst I’d always associate whistling with care-free moments, here it emerges amongst the care-worn:

‘He loves a good tune so whistle one he knows’

As Derek Bailey’s playing rises to a frenetic crescendo, Sylvian’s voice matches the energy as he sings resolutely of one who is ‘game for a fight’ and who ‘muscles his way in and stays for life’. ‘There are the dynamics of his playing which are wonderful and again I had to respond to that to make the work somehow gel…It was a wonderful challenge and I’m very pleased with the result.’ (2003)

The 45 second long ‘She is Not’ seems far less oblique to read whilst focusing on another aspect of the relationship of parent to child. The single stanza lyric contrasts the ‘there she is’ in the first line with the suddenly-clipped ‘there she is not’ of the closing line.

My mind turns to photographs of Sylvian and Chavez in their once home on the West coast of the US, images taken in happier times as reflected by the children’s hand-drawn paintings and pictures adorning the walls behind them. ‘The Good Son’ declares that ‘all the world has come undone’ as ‘She is Not’ depicts a mother in a family scene that exists in one moment but is gone in another.

‘There she is among her children
Full of paintings
Going round and round the houses
Full of paintings, full of pictures.
There she is not.’

‘visionary (derek)’ from David Sylvian’s instagram

Sylvian was asked what Bailey thought of the completed tracks on Blemish? ‘I can’t say with any certainty,’ he replied. ‘What someone may tell you in person may not be the most frank opinion, although Derek had no difficulty with being blunt. He told me some months later, at tea at his home in London, that he thought the pieces worked. He felt his role was accompanist to my lead (whether this was a good or a bad thing or just an observation I can’t say). It would’ve been interesting to work with Derek again in a different context but, alas, that wasn’t to be.’ (2011)

When The Wire published tributes to Bailey in January 2006, these were the words from Keith Rowe, member of AMM and like Bailey a towering presence in the world of free improvisation: ‘In Derek I found what I find in every great artist… He had developed his own language, something in the world is now missing, something irreplaceable. Something unique.’

Sylvian wrote the following: ‘Derek was a no-nonsense poet. Mischievous, provocative, elemental. He spoke a language recognised by many but with a syntax all his own. A discomforting amalgam of the elemental Hughes, Beckettian reductionism and Celan-like compounds and fractures, and it says something of his achievement that he appears to have been so many things to so many people (it’s fascinating, judging from the numerous online testaments written since his death, that to facilitate discussion of his work and its impact, Derek is often compared, without pretension or aggrandisement, to artists working in mediums other than his own). A towering giant of the guitar. Singular, unique.’

‘The Good Son’

Derek Bailey – guitars; David Sylvian – all other instruments, vocal

Music by Derek Bailey and David Sylvian. Lyrics by David Sylvian.

Produced by David Sylvian. From Blemish by David Sylvian, samadhisound, 2003.

Recorded at samadhisound studio Feb/March 2003

Derek Bailey’s session engineered by Toby Hrycek-Robinson at the Moat

Lyrics © samadhisound publishing

‘Play 1’ & ‘Play 3’

Performed by Derek Bailey

Produced by David Sylvian. From To Play: The Blemish Sessions by Derek Bailey, samadhisound, 2006.

Recorded by Toby Hrycek-Robinson at the Moat, 2003

Mixed by David Sylvian at samadhisound, 2006

Download links: ‘The Good Son’ (Apple), ‘She is Not’ (Apple)

Physical media: Blemish (Amazon); To Play: The Blemish Sessions (Amazon)

All quotes are from interviews in 2006 unless otherwise indicated. Full sources and acknowledgements for this article can be found here.

‘It would be impossible to record it together because actually, outside of bringing a set of lyrics along with me and then just kind of improvising with him – which I don’t think would have worked in this context, I’m certainly not an improviser of that standard. So I had to find a means of getting to grips with the kind of improvisation that Derek’s involved in, that I could respond to in some way. And the only way I could do that was with this time lapse of listening to the work through one time, two times, and then responding with a set of lyrics based on what I was hearing. And that’s really why the connection was made more completely for me.’ David Sylvian, 2003

4 thoughts on “The Good Son – She is Not”

  1. Once again a fantastic review/analysis of Sylvian’s work. This must be published to a wider audience at some point. By the way, my Apple Music playlist is now at 9.5 hours – in order of your posts. I look forward to reading more (and more).

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: