Once, in the wake of a swift, shattering love affair, I mapped out my path to catharsis through a novel of tribulation and redemption to be called Kick The Clouds. I never wrote it, but the planning got me through.
Inspiration comes from various sources. In my case, the inspiration for Kick The Clouds wasn’t so much the fallout from a failed relationship as the place I chose to rebuild myself, Caesar’s Camp, an iron age hill fort in the depths of Swinley Forest in Southern England, and the soundtrack that accompanied me there.
I spent hours in that forest, for days on end, communing with my notebook. On the rare occasions it wasn’t full of scribbled recriminations, Kick The Clouds organized itself. By the time I was ready to reenter society, I had a book to write, and no further interest in writing it.
I remember clearly sitting there unburdening my emotions off myself and onto the characters in my novel. All day I’d see nobody—not a soul. Just the trees heaving themselves into the winter skies. It might have been peaceful under any other circumstances.
The music I chose for those long days alone was Shawn Phillips’s 1970 album Second Contribution. This was the relationship that comes once in a lifetime and slams you to the ground in its wake. When it happened to me, Second Contribution was the only album that I knew could help me survive it.
As inspiration, the album had always been one I greatly treasure. Everybody has an album they call their own. It’s something we may share with thousands of other people, but which seems personal to ourselves. For me, Second Contribution is definitely the one lodged deepest in my heart, and speaks most clearly to me.
There are peaks (very high peaks) on the albums that Phillips made on either side of it. The aching psychedelia of ‘Withered Roses’ on 1970’s Contribution, the desperate funk of ‘The Only Logical Conclusion’ on 1971’s Collaboration, the Traffic-fueled jam of ‘Parisien Plight’ on 1972’s Faces, to name just a few.
But Second Contribution is where everything slots together: it’s both dauntingly complex and pleasingly accessible, with lyrics that are eloquent and penetrating. At times Phillips is the grooviest white man you’ve ever heard. At others he projects the keening intensity of a guy whose neck sinews are taut as wires.
Despite its potent fusion of classical, jazz, folk and rock, it’s missing from the prog rock pantheon, which is a shame since only Yes matched Phillips for the breadth of his adventure. What happened, Shawn? How come nobody seems to have noticed you here, all this time?
Is it simply because, on the cover of the album, you have your head pointed resolutely away from us?
Second Contribution begins in the stillness just before something powerful arrives. The first things you hear are the almost subliminal beating of a tympani and Phillips’ hushed voice: “The glow around your face/when you see the lightning race/I know I’m very near/and I can hear the thunder.” There’s a storm coming.
And indeed there is—but at this point in time you have no idea just how turbulent things are about to become.
Second Contribution interweaves two themes throughout its suites and individual songs, and both are present in those opening lines.
The first is lightning. Lightning as a creative and destructive force. Lightning as the energy in our bodies and the spirit in our souls. Sometimes Phillips approaches the theme prosaically, such as the real-life thunderbolt that killed his friend as related in ‘The Ballad Of Casy Deiss,’ and sometimes figuratively, such as Cupid’s arrows of desire let loose in ‘Song For Sagittarians.’
The second theme is the process of picking yourself up from the wreckage of that game-changing failed relationship. “It’s hard to fall out of love completely,” as he mournfully notes in that first track, which goes under the laborious title ‘She Was Waitin’ For Her Mother At The Station In Torino And You Know I Love You Baby But It’s Getting Too Heavy To Laugh’—a title that signals the exhaustion that follows joy. “Memories should fade,” he adds, “at least of you.”
The woman of this opening track is lightning incarnate: fierce, angry, irresistible, volatile, exhilarating, annihilating. A brief strike that flattens you and leaves you injured forever, if not dead.
As the piece progresses, it transforms into thundering rock that pounds and surges under a blistering orchestral arrangement by Paul Buckmaster. The momentum, built literally out of nothing, only relaxes at the end of the fourth track, more than thirteen minutes in.
If you listen carefully, you can hear Phillips muttering directions to the rest of his band throughout this suite, counting them into the refrains. This causes a delicious disconnect between the live rock performance and the elaborate orchestral arrangement that frames it.
Side two trades anger for sorrow. While ‘8500 Years’ on Collaboration mourns mankind’s warrior mask, ‘Lookin’ Up Lookin’ Down’ attempts to move forward after the lightning has stuck. To find a workable path out of the 1960s, for example, to point yourself bravely away from all that turmoil just as Phillips does on the cover.
Its refrain is not only the most brutal moment in his catalog, it’s one of the most harrowing things ever inflicted on popular song: “Every time I’m doing a number/I‘m thinking that I see your eyes/I keep crossing over borderlines/seeing little babies die.”
There is no shelter. With no end to the Vietnam war in sight, even the drugs don’t work anymore. This is what happens when you spend your entire life vigilant, knowing you can be struck down any moment by a bolt from the blue. And hence that solitary figure on the cover, crouched on a cracked dry landscape, misshapen under his black cloak. I can only assume that old friends the Moody Blues were listening when they wrote ‘Lost In A Lost World’ in 1972, itself set in a landscape of parched desolation.
Prefiguring the elaborate constructs of Contribution, the album’s greatest achievement may well be the suite that bridges the album into its conclusion. Here are some of Phillips’s most potent imagery—“Lighting slaying shadows in the tremors of the night” as he begins the literally startling ‘Whaz’Zat’—and though you may chide him for his grammar (or poor taste!) on “And yet he has beshit himself for being just a man,” you can’t fault the venom.
Despite its title, ‘Schmaltz Waltz’ is an almost unbearable heavy rock battering ram in four-time, built around the most effective cinematic crescendo since ‘I Am The Walrus,’ which itself was only bettered by ELO’s ‘Mr. Kingdom’ in 1974. And I bet Jeff Lynne was another person who was listening to this.
The suite dissipates in an orchestral requiem, outside of which Phillips’s deceptively jaunty 12-string coda ‘Steel Eyes’ brings us full circle. Its final crashing chord is the lightning strike he warned us about 38 minutes before.
“Could it be there is someone who remains in her heart, and she cares?” he asks pensively, suspending the words into silence. But the woman he mourns has already moved on, and he is forced to concede defeat in the album’s final, heartbreaking line: “Short love, goodbye.”
It’s the lesson I had to teach myself, all those days communing with my own short love in the forest.
Later, I realized that I’d misheard the title I was going to use for my novel. Phillips doesn’t actually sing “kick the clouds” in the opening track. His line is “a woman who kicks the clown.” It’s somewhat less redemptive, and less appropriate to his theme.
But hell, by the time I noticed I’d already been kicked about enough, thanks very much, and I wasn’t willing to play the clown anymore.
Until the next time, of course.