SFF Song of the Week: Jon Courtenay Grimwood

I have a great soft spot for Jon Courtenay Grimwood.  Partly because he was one of the first people to write nice comments about Debatable Space; mainly because he’s one of the coolest, shrewdest, most wryly observational writers of modern SF you can hope to find.

And this is a wonderful and extremely spooky song choice.

Jon Courtenay Grimwood writes:

Marquee Moon  by Television

Some songs stay with you because they remind you of a time, a friend or a lover. A few songs hook simply with their strangeness

For me, Marquee Moon was one of those.

I bought it in 1977, long before I saw Television or Tom Verlaine on stage. And decades before I saw him support Patti Smith at London’s Festival Hall. A gig where half the journalists and fans in the front rows looked exactly as I remembered them – just older, and fatter and balder.

This song doesn’t remind me of anyone or anything. But my memory of hearing it for the first time and realising I hadn’t the faintest fucking clue what it meant – but that didn’t matter – still sends a shiver down my spine.

Lightning, graveyards, rain, Cadillacs.

A ghost dragged back to the cemetary. Who knows.?

All the ingredients of the dark side of the American dream locked into one song. An epic ten-minute rock-guitar heart for the album of the same name. All anyone seems to agree is that, not only does Marquee Moon means whatever you want it to mean, it means it with a fierce intensity.

You give the listener (the reader, the viewer) the words. They bring their own emotion, reading and interpretation to the work. It’s a lesson for songwriters, novelists and artists everywhere.

Television came out of the New York CBGB scene that produced the Ramones. Yet their sound couldn’t be more different. The interlocking interplay of Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd’s guitars, Fred Smith’s bass lines and Billy Ficca’s drums, the elliptic self-referencing lyrics that mean so much or nothing at all, split fans and critics. (Being called the Grateful Dead of Punk probably wasn’t meant as a compliment.) But there’s no doubt that much post-punk wouldn’t have happened without them.

I used the strangeness of this track in Stamping Butterflies; a novel set in an analogue of Guantanimo Bay, and a Chinese empire in space; in which the two main characters, Prisoner Zero and the emperor are dreaming each other. And an echo of my being hooked back in 1977 found its way into a key scene.

‘A madman wants to kill me and no one can tell me why. The Republicans are targeting my son’s girlfriend. My wife thinks I need a trip to the vet. The coffee around here tastes like dishwater. Apart from that everything’s fine.’

The black woman smiled. ‘I’ve just called in the transcript of the very first interrogation, the one when he was first asked why he tried to shoot you.’

‘And what was his answer?’

‘He was listening to the rain…’

‘What?’

‘That’s what he said. He was listening to the rain. We’re not talking conspiracy here. We’re talking lone nutter. That’s what Ed doesn’t want widely known. Conspiracy plays better.’

‘And what was he hearing?’

Paula looked puzzled, then understood. ‘Who knows?’ she said. ‘Something else, I guess…’

I remember
how the darkness doubled
I recall
lightning struck itself.
I was listening
listening to the rain
I was hearing
hearing something else.

Life in the hive puckered up my night,
the kiss of death, the embrace of life.
There I stand neath the Marquee Moon Just waiting,
Hesitating…
I ain’t waiting

I spoke to a man
down at the tracks.
I asked him
how he don’t go mad.
He said “Look here junior, don’t you be so happy.
And for Heaven’s sake, don’t you be so sad.”

Well a Cadillac
it pulled out of the graveyard.
Pulled up to me
all they said get in.
Then the Cadillac
it puttered back into the graveyard.
And me,
I got out again.

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