[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n a county courthouse not long ago, I had the misfortune to witness something that PJ Harvey sings about on her latest album, “Let England Shake.” She may not even fully realize that a little anecdote like this could possibly be related to her work, but it most definitely is. The event in question involves a teenaged young man, his mother, more than one cop, Harvey’s haunting music, and the observations of a rapidly aging homo.
But first, let me tell you about my older brother. He’s terrific. I rely on him heavily, and as my life goes on, I find myself relying on him that much more. In fact, I normally refer to him in capital letters: Older Brother. Some call him Jesus; some Buddha; some just God. There are probably women out there who call him Older Sister. If that works for them, fine. Older Brother, you see, is my conscience.
[quote float=”right”]Based on the look in his eyes and his general cool-guy demeanor, I figured this was a teenager’s scratch at profundity. [/quote] Older Brother is bigger than I and handsomer. He never judges, punishes, or condemns. He listens. He is frank, open, and honest about not having all the solutions. He asks questions; I provide answers. When I lash out at him, he doesn’t hit back. Sometimes, we wait out the tough stuff together, both of us shaking our heads.
I hear that researchers are now discovering the evolution of the human conscience, in a relatively short span of human history. At least one writer claimed (haven’t read the book yet) that the writings contained within the Holy Bible denote profound changes in this evolution. He postulated that ancient men may have believed that God existed because the voices of their individual consciences seemed disembodied.
Whatever the reasons for our highly evolved consciences, we have them and we call them by many names. You don’t have to call your conscience anything other than what it is. I have found it quite useful to refer to mine as Older Brother, and I will continue to do so. Those of you with actual older brothers, the kind of brothers that every young boy fantasizes about having, may feel less of a need to do so.
Based on what little I know of her life, it is quite possible that PJ Harvey doesn’t refer to her conscience by any fancy names. From my vantage point, I see a woman my age who was raised on a sheep farm, amidst placid, peaceful creatures, by a father and mother who had their own individual skills, their own work to do, and who gave her the opportunity to be exposed to various sorts of music. Based on her work thus far, that last observation is readily apparent, as she has infused popular sensibilities with a wide-ranging number of styles. I like to imagine that Harvey was left alone a lot of the time to explore life as she wished. (She refused the intrusion of the computer and the Internet for as long as possible, and goes online only when she has something she wishes to research. What are the odds she wasted any time growing up in front of the idiot box?) I know for certain that she had a father around, with the opportunity to experience his presence in her daily life.
That experience is quite important, on multiple levels. Even though I am not close to my father, I had him around constantly in my growing up years, and the benefits reveal themselves every day as I traverse this land mass we call America. There is stability inherent in the presence of manhood. Undoubtedly, and especially when she’s a fine woman, there is stability inherent in womanhood, but the lack of muscle and basic masculine outlook must be, I imagine, a serious lack for those who do not enjoy the experience.
In my mind, however, it is not enough to have a father in the home. There must also be a masculine engagement of the little minds that the father has helped to create. This is where fathering takes on a whole new meaning beyond being a mere sperm bank. I am certain that good fathering leads to a conscience, in the mind of the created, that can function at a much higher level. The absence of good fathering or, at a lower level, the absence of any fathering at all, appears to frequently lead to far more destructive ends.
Enter PJ Harvey’s “Let England Shake,” an album of popular music on par with Benjamin Britten’s classically-oriented “War Requiem.” Both masterpieces concern themselves with essentially the same thing: the effects of an empire’s wars felt directly through individual experience. Both works are somewhat politically ambiguous, but thoroughly unambiguous about war’s ravages on society and the self. Read the opening words of Harvey’s titular song:
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The West’s asleep. Let England shake,
Weighted down with silent dead
We’re not going anywhere pleasant from here, folks. Just take a look at what transpired in England a few months after this album’s release. Angry Harry put one word underneath it: feminism. In the sense that many prominent feminists have helped to demonize all men; to shame women into the workplace and out of the hearth; to stand silently by while society turns from small-town sensibility to highly mobile suburban culture infused with the sicknesses of empire, including government schooling, television, and consumerism; I find myself in agreement.
Therefore, Harvey’s strangely upbeat musical ideas and stranger vocal modulations from one song to the next, carried along like a string of bagatelles so that one song cannot be discarded from the whole, have the power of a medieval minstrel standing on a heap of bodies after a battle, pointing out the sorrows created by the wrong ideas and actions, while strumming her autoharp. (And I thought I was done with popular music.)
The man I saw in the courthouse couldn’t be a day younger than 16, but he was already several inches taller than I. He was with a group of people: another young man who didn’t look related to him, his mother, and another woman whose relation to him I also couldn’t identify. He kept the hair on his small, blond head cropped short, atop his long neck and lanky frame, his face shaped by a prominent nose that seemed to draw out the rest, forcing him to slouch. He had the remnants of acne on his jaw and a rather mischievous half-grin on his face. The pink-and-purple tie-dyed shirt he was wearing was scrawled with a gothic design that you would normally find on the back of a biker’s jacket. It featured an eagle clutching something, and beneath the angry beast was a ribbon spinning down below the hem with just two visible words: “ERASE ALL.”
Erase all what? Is that supposed to be profound? Based on the look in his eyes and his general cool-guy demeanor, I figured this was a teenager’s scratch at profundity. Ah, yes. Erase all. That’s what we should do, apparently. Like some nihilistic haiku, it says it all without really saying anything, doesn’t it? Well, it turns out that that’s merely where my mind was going, because when he turned away from me to speak with someone, I saw the same design on the back of his shirt, only up higher so the rest of that swirling ribbon could be read: “ERASE ALL FEAR.”
So it wasn’t nearly as pseudo-profound as I originally thought. It was just stupid. How do you erase all fear? That’s like trying to erase poverty or bigotry. Besides, fear is an emotion. Why didn’t he understand that? We all have fear. Sometimes you can do something about it; sometimes not.
It reminds me of the word “cool,” a word that became popular when popular culture started taking a nose-dive in the 50s, and a word that every generation of suburban, government-educated, and increasingly fatherless Americans has embraced. It still has the same meaning to young people that it did in the 50s, although what comprises being cool changes quite frequently. You can’t be cool wearing the shoulder pads and fluorescent colors that people wore when I was a teenager in the 80s; you can only be ridiculous.
Why should we want to be “cool”? Think about what that word implies. Not hot… not warm… something akin to cold or frozen… aloof… uninvolved… cynically knowing… no fear. Remember Fonzie? He was cool. Fonzie was never afraid. He’d snap his fingers and young women would come running. No man would dare fight him. He successfully erased all fear. Guess what? Kids laugh at Fonzie for entirely different reasons now. He’s ridiculous. He isn’t cool anymore. He also had no parents.
Another woman with files and a suit walked out of one of the offices and spoke to the mother. “Well, what do you think?” she asked. The mother had a half-grin like Erase All Fear, but for different reasons. I didn’t hear what she mumbled to the official lady, but it sounded like the half-grin was pinned to her face out of exasperation. I never saw the father in the hallway, and have no idea of his whereabouts.
Eventually this little group disappeared. A big handsome cop walked past me and down the hallway a little later on, and from the open door of an adjoining courtroom, I heard a man shout, “Stop!” The door quickly closed and the cop kept walking, looking straight ahead. Consequently, I soon forgot about the disembodied voice. A few minutes later, that same door opened again, and Erase All Fear was pushed violently up against the wall of the corridor by two other big handsome cops. He was quickly cuffed, frisked, and taken away, with that cheesy half-grin on his cool face.
I can’t be certain, and I acknowledge that most of my observations are anecdotal in nature, but I strongly suspect that the absence of a father on that day in the courthouse was no mere coincidence. I also strongly suspect that Erase All Fear has no Older Brother to talk to. At least, not yet. Perhaps his mind is too far away from his conscience at this point. But there is also a chance, I hope, that one of the big handsome cops that cuffs him in the future might actually be able to ask him a question or two that wakes up his Older Brother for him. Maybe it happened that day with the cuffer or the frisker. I don’t know.
I remember one time when it happened for me. I was in conversation with one of my local church leaders. Back when I was a religious conservative and unhappy about being gay, I was having one of my many personal interviews with this guy. These interviews had become routine, and involved confessing my many terrible “sins.” In spite of my ideological differences now, this one particular leader did me a great service. In the turmoil of my personal life, he had the decency to tell me plainly that he had no idea how to help me (something that Older Brother sometimes says). But then he asked a question that changed my life. Eyes searching up towards the ceiling for something – anything – to help me, he asked, “Do you have any buddies?” I answered without hesitation and startled myself with the answer: “No.” Eventually, that fatherly remark – a simple question: no lecture, no advice, no threat, no bribe nor diatribe – led me out of a cycle not unlike the one currently drowning Erase All Fear.
That’s what fathers are for: building your conscience. Fathers who fail to do that, and mothers who take their children away from fathers who can do that, are creating miniature Erase All Fears as we speak. I know it. I think PJ Harvey knows it. And now you know it.
Therefore, I have a question for all you feminists out there: What are you going to do about it? Before you answer, I suggest you download a female musician’s latest album and take a good hard listen to the wildly shifting tone of her voice, which some have errantly described as “childlike.” It is nothing of the sort. Being a fully grown woman, Harvey cannot truly ape a child’s voice. She can, however, affect a higher register, like she does in the opening number as well as several others, but only in a way that seems hideously condescending, the way some women (and even men) do from time to time in order to ingratiate themselves to little people that they perceive to be inferior and somewhat stupid. It is deliberately seductive, until it turns into the wail of an angry and grieving woman:
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What is the glorious fruit of our land?
Its fruit is deformed children…
What is the glorious fruit of our land?
Its fruit is orphaned children.
There is more than one war going on right now, ladies, but the outcomes are always the same. Consider yourselves warned. And good luck erasing the fears about to be unleashed, many of them without conscience and without fathers.