Went to see one of my all-time favorites, Bonnie 'Prince' Billy (AKA Will Oldham, AKA Palace Music, AKA Palace Songs, AKA Bonny Billy) at the ABC in Glasgow on Tuesday evening. It's the fourth time I've seen him and, as always, he did not disappoint. Left me feeling on a completely transcendent high. He always does something a bit different, and I felt really fortunate to catch this one- it's partly funded by the Scottish Arts Council- the Billster is here doing a series of gigs with Scottish group Harum Scarum, who do a rocking take on traditional Scottish fiddle music, and happen to be made up of four rather impressive women and one sweet boy on guitar. I don't know how much they rehearsed together, but Billy's songs backed up by four wild banshees on vocals and fiddles/flutes/banjo/accordion just worked, including a version of "My Home is the Sea" that rocked out in its own way as much as the 'proper' headbanger version with Matt Sweeney last year in Edinburgh. I heard that's he's been quoted as saying he's never met a band that "gets" him like Harum Scarum do. Guess it's those bluegrass ancestral vibes coming through.
And he is a bit different himself. More than a bit. Over the years that I've been following his music, it's been clear that he is one of those rather bizarre mad geniuses that develop a cult following among geeky young men. Last night had the highest proportion of women in the audience that I've ever seen at one of his gigs. And yet some complete idiot still managed to nearly spoil it for me and the people around me by tunelessly singing along and rudely pushing in front of shorter people and rubbing his crotch against my backside and that of the woman standing next to me and generally being completely oblivious to the people around him. Oblivious in a way that even drunken Weegies generally aren't. I have observed that there are many lads like him in Billy's fan-base. There may be a reason for this ...
It's only because a friend of mine has been trying to get her son diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome recently that the thing has been on my mind- been doing a bit of trawling on t'Internet about it - I blogged on it ages ago as another friend of mine has a boyfriend who may have the "Syndrome". I'm a bit of a fan of the radical Aspergia viewpoint- that it's a different way of being, not an illness. Anyway- it really hit me watching Mr Will Oldham that he's a definite candidate. The following reasons may only make sense to anyone who knows about Aspies. The bizarre grimaces and twitches he displays while singing are clearly completely natural to him and part of his being- I doubt he's even aware of them. He's had some hard times in the past- very deep depression in late adolescence and early adulthood. He's given a few interviews in recent years (as he's clearly been becoming more comfortable in himself and the world) but he used to be known for NEVER doing interviews, or, on the odd occasion he would show up for one, behaving in a manner liable to get the social round your house if you acted like that at a job interview. Like not answering any questions or making eye contact, and wearing very dark glasses and a silly hat in order to not make eye contact. The first gig of his I saw he didn't make eye contact with the audience once; these days he does occasionally look out at us!
He is pleasingly un-self-conscious at the same time, and his lyrics are simply the best of anyone living that I know- they are a just slightly off-kilter description of the world and show a very deep identification with animals, in many songs, which appeals to my shamanic sensibility (and is apparently common, though by no means universal, in Aspies- cf Temple Grandin's work, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. my friend Tom who may or may not be an Aspie but strongly identifies with them and considers himself to be a chimp). Will is known, somewhat unfairly, as a "miserabilist", but to me his songs touch on every dark corner of being human without sentiment and often with great humour. Almost as if observed by a Martian. They are often very sexually explicit as well, but he is so un-self-conscious about that too; you feel he's just singing about another part of life (and he puts himself inside the woman's point-of-view fairly often too- Aspies often defy socially defined gender roles and norms). One of the great attractions for me of this man is he gives me a different take on masculinity, one that I can relate to and feel warm to, but that isn't spineless or weak.
My friend said to me on Tuesday night that she loves how "confident" he appears in his weirdness, but to me I don't even see confidence, just obliviousness to the fact that he should even need confidence while twitching his way across the stage and singing about his finger up his wife's bum.
If I haven't said it before I'll say it now: I love you Will Oldham.
Then, today I was reading a review in the Guardian of a Fiona Apple gig. I guess it's one of those times when you are thinking of something then see it everywhere. So I should stress, as if it was necessary, that I don't have a clue if Will Oldham or Fiona Apple have Asperger's Syndrome, I'm just musing about something that interests me at the moment. Anyway, I don't really know her music- all I know is the duet she does on one of Johnny Cash's last albums: Bridge Over Troubled Water. But here are some quotes from the Guardian review:
She eschews inter-song banter in favour of a series of foreboding sighs and woeful moans, leans on her piano with her head in her hands and announces that she has "half a brain", but refrains from crying, runs offstage only during the more lengthy keyboard solos
... and ...
You rather get the impression that for some of the people here, Apple's visible discomfort is a badge of authenticity. In a world where confessional writers keep turning out to be hoaxes, like JT Leroy, or embroiderers of the truth, like alcoholic memoir-writer James Frey, her cringing tics and wounded groans stand as a kind of proof that the emotions her songs express are for real.
... and ...
She appears to be dredging every line up from a particularly dank recess of her psyche, flapping her arms when she sings, bending almost double and covering her eyes when she doesn't.
That last one really hit home for me- the reviewer was uncomfortable and obviously saw it as a sign of distress, and wondered about the ethics of watching someone in distress for entertainment. But what if she wasn't distressed, just coping with sensory overload in a way that works for her? Nobody forced her on the stage- for someone with Asperger's these groans and flappings and eye-coverings would be their version of the kind of stage-craft techniques actors and signers use to overcome stage fright and nerves, that we don't see.
I'm anything but Aspie myself, but nor do I feel I'm what Aspies would call NT - "neuro-typical". I kind of wander out the other end of the neuro spectrum and have always felt like a Martian myself trying to learn Earth ways and wondering why others can't see or understand what I see and understand. Maybe that's why I find it all so fascinating.
Anyway, the value that people who are different from the norm bring to a culture, that's the point. If my friend's son does have Asperger's Syndrome, or even if he technically doesn't but is still 'different' (and special and amazing), he needs to see adults out there doing amazing things out of a similar place. Rock on, weird musos.