There are some recordings which seem to shift, while you listen, from music to… something else entirely. Sound stops conforming to the shapes and structures which one’s ear might be used to in the framework of “music”, and starts behaving as if it’s expression belongs to another art altogether. Not to say that the art of music is in any way insufficient, it’s just that sometimes, some composers create effects which don’t seem to belong to any sort of established label or experience. In my opinion, Gavin Bryars manages just that with his iconic “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet”; the story behind this recording is flabbergasting in its own right, and I’m very glad to have finally found the right time on my internal clock to write about it.
The first thing I need to say about this work is that it really isn’t for everyday listening and it isn’t for “on the run” listeners. It’s an exhausting, draining, bizarrely hypnotic work which hit me over the head like a rag soaked in chloroform, a long time ago, when I first started hoarding “minimalist” music. I soon learned the story of the original tape recording which sits at the base and at the very peak of the music, in a sort of moebian twist of a subtlety I had never seen before and I’ve never seen since.
Apparently, while working for some sort of documentary, the composer was interviewing some tramps, and one of them sang him this song. Later, when retuning to the communal creative space he was working in, shared with artists of varied persuasions, he played the tape and forgot to turn it off while going out to lunch. The tape kept repeating and the slight, achingly difficult to define rhythmic asymmetry that this endless loop created a certain mood in the room, so odd, so formidable, that by the time he returned, some of the artists which were still in the space had a beatific expression, some of them even going so far as weeping in awe. Gavin Bryars set out to compose an orchestral score to accompany the old tramp’s singing, which ended up being 25 minutes long – one side of a vinyl disc. The version I’m writing about came over twenty years later, when, after the advent of the CD, which allowed for uninterrupted recordings of up to 74 minutes, he decided, at Philip Glass’ suggestion, to record the piece again, structuring it differently, and adding Tom Waits’ voice as a culmination. The story is longer and more sinuous, and if I’ve managed to peak your interest, I intensely suggest you read Gavin Bryars’ own telling of the tale, available here.
How can a 74 minute loop of an old tramp’s weary and naive voice have such a heartbreaking effect? Does it really? Is there anything intrinsic about this music which makes it so breathtakingly powerful once you let it in? I think there is. I think Gavin Bryars has had the immense luck and blessed astuteness of perception to recognize the musical iteration of the spiritual impact of a prayer. I’m not a religious person, so for me the bliss of devotion and prayer which believers talk about is a closed door. However, in the presence of this music and this music alone I have come close to feeling the dissolution of fear and doubt which is said to come from abandonment of self to the will of the divine. It’s not something I wish to experience every day – as I said, I find the process draining and capable of disconnecting me from reality for far longer than the music lasts. However, when the time is right, having heard “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” once, I cannot help but recognize moments where it is the only thing I can listen to, the only thing that makes sense. These are not moments of desperation or fear, neither are they moments of joy. Rather, the time comes when emotion falls silent for a little while. When there is so little to be said, that one phrase, limping, candid, infused with more hope than I have ever seen manifest in any other work of art, one phrase can somehow refill the drained vessel of one’s experience and availability.
There’s absolutely no point in trying to critique Tom Waits’ performance on this record. It belongs, and that’s the highest praise that I can give and that, I think, can be given faced with the tramp’s voice. I can only hope you’ll set aside the time to give this album a chance. It’s a truly unique experience!