How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live?
Calvin Johnson. Exeter Cavern. February 15th 2004.
Iíve spent my whole life running away.

Matthew once wrote how we have all formed the essential essence of our selves by the time we are sixteen. At times I think heís all wrong, think that personally Iíve changed immeasurably in the past twenty three years, although maybe thatís just because it would be too depressing to think otherwise. At other times I think he has a point, suspect that in those essences of who we are, he is right.

So, my most lasting memory of being sixteen? The tension between the overwhelming need to belong somewhere and the indescribable fear of making connections, so that every time I found myself in a situation where I thought there even might be like-minded souls, I would sit lost in a corner before dissolving into the air. Mostly I would just take off on long walks along the beach, or go home and get my bicycle out then head off into the hills.

Strange then to be fighting the same tension when approaching forty? Maybe, and maybe not. Maybe it means Iíve never grown up, maybe it means we never do.

So, Calvin Johnson at the Cavern. I play some records for forty minutes to no-one but myself and a shuffling lady in an Andy Warhol hooped shirt and blue beret. I dance inside and behind the decks to Subway Sect and Fire Engines, Black Tambourine and The Loves. The music feels good, fills the void. And isnít that what itís all about? Isnít that why we get so addicted to music? Isnít it the drug that helps fill those chasms of emptiness, that makes us feel less alone and lonely in our miserable existence?

And if music is that drug, then Calvin Johnson has always been class A. Calvin Johnson has always seemed to have the most natural understanding of why music is important, and how to make music that communicates with grace and soul. Itís not an easy thing to do.

Tonight heís doing it in a wonderfully odd Folk Hero persona, like some strange Appalachian woodsman transported to the 21st Century with an encyclopaedic knowledge of Punk, Dub, Hip Hop and, naturally, Folk. Heís Bradley Kincaid with a Richard Hell stare, Blind Alfred Reed with a safety pin stuck in his heart. Harry Smith would love him.

The thirty or so people gathered here tonight love him too, the more so when he climbs off the stage to wander amongst us, entertaining as he goes with rambling monologues punctuated by occasional songs that bristle with magic. Throughout it all he pins us with eyes that twinkle with mischief and that challenge with a steely defiance. They tell us Calvin Johnson has been around and seen a lot. They tell us that maybe despite it all heís still in love with all of this: This peculiar collision between invention and reality; this tension between knowing what you need to say and the need to make it up as you go along, continually reinventing, tearing down and building anew; this simultaneously simple and complex thing we call music.

After one more extended ramble about Prince (and thereís an importance to that reference ≠ a clear indication that Calvin too appreciates the importance of theatre and presentation) he climbs back on the stage and sings one more song. Itís as raw and beautiful as Uncle Dave Macon or The Legend! There are closed eyes and beatific smiles. There are belly laughs and tears.

I dig out my record bag and pack up my camera, head on home whilst the kids swarm around Calvin buying CDs and mix-tapes. Theyíve cemented connections, glimpsed new possibilities. Me? Iím still running away.

© 2004Alistair Fitchett

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