April 23rd, 2005


Lovely trees

Well, I really have to thank auto_appendix profusely for sending me Peter Neal's Incredible String Band DVD Be Glad For The Song Has No Ending. What can I say? Words like "life-changing" and "determinant" kept floating into my mind as I watched the two films, the 1968 documentary made for BBC arts programme Omnibus but shelved because it was "too advanced", and the whimsical pantomime filmed on Super 8 by the band themselves, The Pirate and the Crystal Ball, described quite accurately as "Wickermanesque".

The "Wickermanesque" atmosphere was enhanced by the fact that I interlaced bits of the DVD with a documentary being broadcast on Arte called The Cherry Blossom Front, a film by Kenichi Watanabe about Japan's sakura-mania, and the folk rituals surrounding the annual appearance of the blossom. The film showed Mount Yoshino, near Nara, exploding with cherry blossom, and showed the monk who tends an 1800 year-old cherry tree updating a website dedicated to it with daily pictures. The monk saw the tree as both sacred and frail, and his respect for it was thoroughly practical: make sure it has the best soil, so that its branches stay healthy. Support the tree, where necessary, with wooden platforms so that it can ramble horizontally despite having been blown around by typhoons for nearly two thousand years.

Back to Be Glad: the Incredibles are walking around Edinburgh, it's 1968, they're talking about God. "Some people feel they're separate from God and inferior. Others feel they share that energy." It's Robin Williamson talking, a faraway look in his eyes, and what he's describing is really the secret of Shinto. God is not elsewhere, not unknowable, but in us and in nature, channellable, tied up with down-to-earth things like trees and stories and weird musical instruments. I think the Shinto priest with his cherry tree would agree: what we call the divine is all tied up with structure, and we participate in it by playing with structures, tampering with structures, creating structures. The arbitrariness and unpredictability of the ISBs' song structure is, in this sense, divine, and perfectly worldly. Like their songs, the band's live performances are casually, divinely divergent: in the film they wear absurd Noah and Dove masks, retell the flood story "through the illusion of long-distance time-colour television", turn a routine gig into a dance performance and a poetry reading. Precious, pretentious, twee, trippy... well, yes, all of the above, if it weren't for the fact that these people really are channelling something divine, as the music (ramshackle, implausible, zany, devotional) confirms. Like blossom shooting from the cells of an ancient tree in spring, these songs have no ending.