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Cheery songs of the apocalypse: Listening to Critchley & Simmons with Simon Critchley

Simon Critchley has figured out how to be heard. The renown philosopher’s words are expressed in books, articles, podcasts, interviews, newspapers, lectures, audiobooks and… song. One of those interviews I mentioned was with me, which came about because one of those books Simon wrote was about David Bowie. At the end of our discussion he invited me down to New York City for a listening party for the album, Gone Forever, by Critchley & Simmons. He’s the Critchley, and he wrote the lyrics and was the lead vocalist. It was a terrific experience.

At this point, though, I am at a disadvantage. For someone who writes about music, I am acutely aware that I don’t know how to write about music. I know about David Bowie, but I don’t have the vocabulary to adequately articulate my thoughts about music that is not his. Fortunately, one of the songs on Gone Forever is a Bowie cover, but I’ll come back to that.

What struck me most is that in its totality, Gone Forever, and the listening party experience, was art of the pandemic, which is to say art of the apocalypse. Simon explained that the songs were created over the past five years, so, whatever else inspired the project, what was happening around its creation was covid and the transition of the world.

This was underscored by the visual accompaniment to the listening part. Photographer Andrew Zuckerman, who was there, explained that during the lockdown phase he had taken a series of photographs of what was happening on the outside— pictures of the same set of trees over time. He time-lapsed these pictures (plus added a few little effects), which the audience watched while hearing the music. Slowly, we saw winter turn to summer, green leaves sprout and grow lush. Life returned. Maybe not gone forever.

But I seldom go to events and when I do appear in public I wear a KN-95 mask. I sat in a corner, hyper-aware of my surroundings and passing on my opportunity to socialize. I said hello and exchanged pleasantries with Simon but missed my chance to engage in meaningful conversation.

The songs don’t sound apocalyptic. They sound peaceful, some cheerful, for the most part. But it was Simmons who wrote the music (and played guitar), Critchley, the philosopher wrote the words:

“No longer mourn for me when I am dead
Than you shall hear the sullen bell
Give warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world with vilest worms to dwell”

These are lyrics from the opening song, the title track. The music of which sounds, to my amateur ears like a Beatles song.

That song frames the album. What follows are days that fly away and die; an apocalypse bride; an unlikely-to-be-remembered castaway who would die like a baby on a beach; all the ghosts and monsters and a thorn in me; a sandman hunting for children’s eyes; pain going by; and a skull beneath the skin. These are some of the lyrics that pop up on songs that don’t actually sound maudlin at all. In fact, they sound…relaxing.

But death lingers in the shadows of these songs, like covid continues to linger. Perhaps in the room in which I watched and listened, off in the corner wearing my mask.

And then there’s the Bowie song. The song is an adaptation of what appears on Diamond Dogs as “Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (Reprise),” which is really one song. Critchley and Simmons zero in on the middle part, “Candidate,” and transubstantiate it into “If you want it, boys (Candidate).” It is magnificent. But beyond that, by some impossible coincidence, the original song was part of my personal pandemic soundtrack. Simon wrote in his Bowie book that he sometimes uses Bowie songs to order his life. I did this in 2021 with Diamond Dogs, naming chapter titles after the album’s songs in a document I put together to try to sort out what was happening. My world was imploding and “Candidate” seemed to explain it. Especially the lines: “Someone scrawled on the wall, ‘I smell the blood of les Tricoteuses;’ who wrote up scandals in other bars; I’m having so much fun with the poisonous people; spreading rumors and lies and stories they made up.” By some act of cosmic alignment, these lines are the centerpiece of the Critchley & Simmons adaptation of the song.

This isn’t the occasion to explain all that, but to linger on this point for a moment— I had been listening to the Bowie song for decades and never really paid much attention to the line about “les Tricoteuses,” but I devoted a fair bit of thought to that line when I was contemplating the song in 2021. Les Tricoteuses were the bitter French women depicted in art of the revolution knitting by the guillotines. The word is sometimes used to describe twisted, sadistic women like the Russian spy Rosa Klebb in my favorite James Bond novel, From Russia with Love. But les Tricoteuses started out protesting the lack of bread and managed to get some attention for their efforts. They ran into the same problem that many instigators of revolution do, with righteousness in their original motivations — they get used by the Robespierres of the world to seize power, briefly, replacing an imperfect regime with a reign of terror before they themselves get replaced by a Napoleon.

But I’m getting off track.

Anyway, I have admiration for someone who wants to sing, so he makes albums. I relate in the sense that I want to talk to someone like Simon Critchley so I do it and make it part of my blog. The universe can be difficult but sometimes it is surprisingly cooperative.

I’m grateful that Simon invited me to this event. I am jealous — he has one thing I never will, a good singing voice! I don’t go to a lot of events and this was fun.

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The Divine Symmetry series compares Bowie songs to other songs with some sort of similarity, intentional or otherwise… usually. This one is a little different. The term is borrowed from Bowie’s song, “Quicksand.”

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