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In Dreams Begin Responsibilities - Heaven Is Whenever We Can Get Together 4 – ‘When you look a little closer, you learn a lot more.’

  by Steve Miles

published: 5 / 12 / 2023

In Dreams Begin Responsibilities - Heaven Is Whenever We Can Get Together 4 – ‘When you look a little closer, you learn a lot more.’

In the third part of this article, we heard from Craig Finn, discussing his classic song about the power of music and the humanity that lies behind it, ‘Heaven Is Whenever’. Here, we conclude that interview, and hear from the songwriter of the band that form the core of that song, Heavenly’s Amelia Fletcher, on the band and the tragic death of her brother in 1997. Mathew’s death plays a major part in the song and makes it the classic it is; to the casual listener he’s maybe under-emphasised but without that detail, the song would be so very much more shallow. His tragedy underlines the grasping of heaven here now; it makes the need for the boy and the girl in the song to be happy together today to be far more urgent, and it brilliantly captures the limits of fandom, by acknowledging the narrator’s lack of knowledge about what was going on inside the lives of the bands he loves. I mentioned John Berryman taking his own life above, and an early Hold Steady song, ‘Hot Fries’, a leftover from their first album (2004) talks of two suicides when he sings, ‘Jack Kerouac is dead/ He drank himself to death/ I just ain't that high/ All your favourite songs wouldn't seem so sad/ If you weren't so depressed/ Elliott Smith seems like a mess to me’. This is a bit more glib, I think, although it suggests a warning not to wallow in the bad things. Craig has grown as a writer over the years, however, and in these other songs less attention is paid to the real life person, than that paid to Mathew Fletcher, who is clearly sanctified by having a place attached to him – ‘I think they were from Oxford’ (some fans claim this to be the first mention of a place outside of the States in a Craig Finn song). I asked Craig whether he knew about Mathew’s death before he wrote the song or whether it came out as he wrote it, and Craig’s answer showed the sensitivity and consideration of the man in every way: ‘I knew about that, and I looked it up to make sure I was getting it right. But it struck me because I thought the music was very positive, and I was kind of thinking, there's all these stories behind this. These little missives we get: you get a seven-inch, it doesn't tell you everything about the four or five people who created it, just the song that they wrote together. And I think that that was something that struck me: the music in my head was not depression, was not despair. And, you know, I really love this song. And I'm glad I wrote it. But I wonder if I would write it now… I had a close friend, Scott Hutchinson, from Frightened Rabbit, who died from suicide a couple years back. And I think that I might stay out of the way of writing about someone I didn't know personally now if I was to do it all over again. But at the same time, I wrote the song and I do love it and I know it came from the right place. I told him that I never met Mathew either and although Amelia had given her blessing to this piece, it still felt very uncomfortable. We both became far less articulate as we continued. 'Yeah. Although, it's on two different levels. I definitely know I was coming at it from the right place in my heart, but yeah, I didn't know Mathew, so I understand it gets very - I think the one thing with Scott Hutchinson, my friend, is that there’s music attached, you know? And a fan base. And there are people that are all going to experience it in a different way. So it's something to be sensitive about, but you know, I would hope whoever heard it would know that. At 51, where I'm at now, I think that song would be… I don't know that I would write that same song. The ambivalence of having written a great song that means so much to so many people, but references a real person rather than a character, with all that that entails, clearly takes Craig some time to explain. And his admission that he might not write the song now was, I thought, remarkably thoughtful and candid, especially given the meaning of the song to so many people, and the uplifting, rather than deflating, effect of the song overall. I pointed out to him that he captured that ambivalence perfectly at the time, in the original song, with the deeply moving lines, ‘I still spin that single/ But it don't sound that simple/ I still spin that single,/ But it don't sound that simple anymore.’ ‘ Yeah, exactly. Exactly. That's exactly it. Space Manatee is a fun pop song, right? A manatee in space! In some ways, it ended up being a very good example of a contrast between what the music felt like to me when I first heard it, and what it became.’ So happiness, in short, is pretty close to fandom: ‘Heaven is whenever/ We can get together,’ and share records. The band are sharing with you already, but do you need to share in turn? ‘ Yeah, ideally. I mean, I will say I probably spent the most of my record-listening time by myself, but I would sit on the floor by my stereo and lay out the records in front of me. And as I got friends and girlfriends, we would do that too, you know? In that pre-Spotify era, you weren't going to hear the music, especially stuff that wasn't on the radio, unless you had the record, or your friend did. So there was a lot of coming together. My best friend growing up, I remember us getting very strategic about our record store visits - we could never get the same record because that would just be limiting. You each get two different records, then you go home and listen to them together and tape them for each other. So that you double your buying power! The further irony is that the core meaning of ‘Heaven Is Whenever’ is very close to the heart of the most direct song Amelia has written about her brother’s death, Marine Research’s ‘Hopefulness to Hopelessness’ (1999). ‘I still want to have a garden with flowers, not mud, in/ I still want to learn the art of being rude/ I still want to hear you end your half-finished pop songs/ I still want to be who I am, but be it with you.’ Here is hope, not despair; making the most of whatever life offers rather than dwelling on what it doesn’t; and sharing it with other people. Sticking with hopefulness means trying to get as close to heaven – albeit an earthly, ‘half-finished’, more mundane version – in the here and now. ‘When Mathew died, we stopped Heavenly immediately. I don’t think we even thought about doing anything different, it was so obviously wrong to carry on without him. He was such an integral part of the band, and of our lives. In fact, we initially decided to stop making music altogether. It felt like a bad idea to look backwards, better to move onto new things. But we all really missed playing…’ ‘I don’t know if music is the absolute core of my life, but it is true that it has remained a strong theme. These days I think a lot of it is that it is something Rob (her husband) and I do together. So there is a social side. But also, I just really love music. A great song can make you feel a million different emotions at once. I don’t think I’ve ever written a truly great song, but in a way that’s good. I have to keep trying!’ ‘Even 27 years later, we did feel nervous about starting Heavenly again. But we had got to know drummer Ian Button. He plays on all of our current music (including European Sun), and he is just a very sympathetic individual. He never knew Mathew, but he understood the sensitivity of the situation. We knew it would be okay with him.’ Does time heal? ‘Yes, thankfully. We still miss Mathew a lot, but it isn’t anything like as painful as it used to be. And it has been joyous playing the old Heavenly songs again. Partly because they represent such an important time in our lives. But partly just because they are good songs, and fun to play!’ When someone dies, even of old age, those that are left behind cannot help but wonder, ‘What if?’. This afternoon, I took my children to a small beech wood near us that is awash with bluebells for a couple of weeks every year. Tall, slender, branchless beeches stretch into the sky, casting shade over the bronze carpet of their fallen leaves, and between them grow crowds of vibrant violet-blue flowers. My Mum loved the place, but I never put myself out to take her there more than once or twice out of maybe 15 possible years; it never seemed important enough, or I missed the window of opportunity or thought there’d be another year. I never go there without a tinge of regret and self-blame. How much more must the pain and the recriminations be when someone close to you takes their own life? This takes us back to where we started, with Ian Curtis and his bandmates, and my ignorant admiration for the heart-sleeved among us. Amelia remembers Mathew’s death came at the time as, ‘A total surprise. But in retrospect I think that was only because we were very naive. We knew he had been depressed and angry, and he had sent plenty of signals, in terms of smashing stuff and hurting himself. We just didn’t take the warning signs seriously enough. We didn’t think suicide was a thing that someone we knew and loved would ever do.’ ‘In terms of looking back, it is almost impossible not to think about all the things we could have done differently and wonder whether they might have made a difference. I know my parents asked themselves the same question many times. But you can drive yourself mad if you go too far down that track. In the end, I take comfort from knowing that none of us did anything terribly wrong, even if there are bound to have been things we could have done better.’ The ’What If?’ question, of course, looks forward as much as it does backwards. ‘A million reasons for wanting to carry on living to achieve/ A million things I am unlikely ever to carry out/ But I like the make-believe’ – Marine Research, ‘Hopefulness to Hopelessness’ (1999, from the album, ‘Sounds From The Gulf Stream’). This song is the closest Amelia has come to dealing in music with Mathew’s death. Did she, I wondered, mean by this that Mathew didn’t have things he wanted to achieve, or did he not share the ‘make believe’? ‘Gosh. I don’t know. I think he usually had things he wanted to do, and I think he was usually up for the make believe. But he was just finding everything really hard at that time. And that is the most galling thing. I’d feel more okay about his death, if I thought he’d have been destined to a long life of failure and depression. Of continued hopelessness and never hopefulness. But I’m now convinced that wouldn’t have been the case. If he could have just got through that bad period, I believe he would have been fine. He had a bunch of friends, who were similarly down at the time, and they are pretty upbeat these days! I’m obviously glad they are all fine, but it is heart breaking to think about Mathew in that context.’ ‘I still want to hear you end your half-finished pop songs/ I still want to be who I am, but be it with you/ Hopefulness to hopelessness is not very far, I suppose/ Hopefulness to hopelessness is not very far/ But don't go ever blur the line’. What prompted the refrain of the title? ‘I think it goes back to us not spotting how bad Mathew had got. I had thought he was still hopeful. He’d obviously decided things were hopeless. The song is about the importance of the simple things that can keep you positive. The desire to make a garden out of a muddy mess, to get a cool haircut, to write a song, etc. Those little things can be really important.’ I wondered whether, with the benefit of time, Amelia felt that the loss of her brother had changed the course of her own life? ‘It definitely changed me. The immediate effect was actually that I lost my confidence. I felt that Mathew had always been the funny man to my straight man; that we were a double act, and that without him I was just kind of a blank persona. It took quite a while for me to work out who I was again.’ ‘But then, yes, I think it made me more determined to make something out of my life. A bit like I had to live life for both of us now. Unsurprisingly, I’m also now much more alert to the seriousness of mental health issues, and very supportive of the various services that try to help. £1 from every ticket for our upcoming Heavenly shows will be going to the Grassroots Suicide Prevention charity, which feels right.’ The same charity benefited from the proceeds of a small festival in Hastings in 2017 which was organised in memory of Mathew. His sister wrote something for that event, which is fitting to reproduce below: ‘My brother Mathew would have been 47 in a couple of weeks. I don’t often brood upon how old he might have been now, if he had still been around. There seems little point. But I do often think of the 25-year-old Mathew that I last saw. And I still wonder whether we could have done more to help him.’ ‘After all, he gave us plenty of warning signs. Fragile moods, tense phone calls, heavy drinking, scarred wrists, smashed windows. I lost count of how many times I helped him clean up bloody bathrooms after bouts of self-destruction. And then kept my promise not to tell our parents. Not that our parents would have known what to do either. They once saw the results of one of his episodes themselves. We’d been out without Mathew, and came home to a smashed French window and blood all over the shaggy cream carpet. Our parents weren’t cross with Mathew. I suspect he would have preferred it if they had been. Instead, we all went into cleaning mode. We picked up glass, sprayed the carpet with cleaning foam, phoned for a window repairman. We had no idea what else to do. No one sat down and just talked to Mathew. Not properly anyway. No one thought to suggest any sort of therapy. No one even gave Mathew a hug.’ ‘Of course we should have guessed what was coming. It seems so obvious now. But at the time it seemed an impossibility. Such an extreme thing to do. And after all, despite his low moments, Mathew had loads of friends, was always out having fun, was brilliantly funny, didn’t seem to find it hard to pick up girls. He’d done well at university, played with our band all around the world, and had a job that he seemed to love. He’d been through a bad patch, but it was bound to get better soon. Wasn’t it?’ Regret, hope, forgiveness, redemption - these are concepts everyone encounters, whether there’s a religion to shape them in your mind or not. And songs, being not just words, but also music, can always have that soaring lust for life inside them through just a well-timed crashing chord or a spirited drum-roll. Of course, for Craig Finn, concepts like redemption and heaven are laced with the extra meaning that comes with being a ‘lapsed Catholic.’ ‘I was raised Catholic but was turned off a lot of the political stances as well as the incredible abuse. But, of course, it affected me in some way, as these things do. Sitting in the pews, and thinking about the fire and brimstone, that imagery was sort of seared into my skull. When I think about good and evil, my brain tends to go there, you know?’ So I asked if it was a big thing for him to have as a statement of faith the idea that heaven is ‘best friends and records’ rather than ‘somewhere you go to meet your maker’? ‘I think it's a new faith, yeah. It’s definitely my belief that we can't defer everything, that’s probably the best way to say it. The one thing that's healthy is to say, we are born with original sin. We are imperfect, however you want to say that concept: we, as humans, fuck up and we need to be forgiven.’ ‘And we also need to do our best and, if there's a reward in heaven, maybe that's a positive thing, but we also have to be good here. We have to enjoy ourselves here. And I hope that being good, in that sense, is its own reward. When I think about the Bible, when I think about the idea of sin: okay, so you tell a lie and that's a sin. But if you take out the word ‘sin’, and you put in the word ‘anxiety’ I find, oftentimes, it still works. So you tell a lie and it leads to anxiety, because now you got to keep your story straight, right? So telling the truth, for instance, is a balm against anxiety, because it's all out there, right? You aren't hiding something inside from the world.’ So, is being good and having a good time ever the same thing? ‘I don't believe that having a good time needs to involve exploiting anyone. I think that we're always making that transaction in our head. I could go out to the bar tonight, and if you want to put a number on it, I could have a six, have a good time. But then tomorrow morning, if I don't go to the bar, maybe my morning is going to be a seven. Because I'll be up early, and I'll be walking my dog or whatever. And you're always making that transaction, I think. Instead of, ‘I'm going to not do this tonight because I'm going to enjoy it more later,’ we might go, ‘I know I'm going to feel like shit tomorrow but my friend’s birthday’s tonight and I think his friendship means a lot.’ There's transactions we make with ourselves all the time.’ Is that the same as being a good person, though, or is that just being good to yourself? Is St. Peter really concerned with hangovers, or more about kindness and so on? ‘I think it's treating people with respect and kindness. I think it's trying to not be always 100% self-involved. I think friendships are a massively important thing in this world, especially as we become so isolated and insular with technology and so on. Friendships need to be attended to, and as we get older too, it's easy for things to fall away, but I think that’s one of the beautiful things while we're here.’ Is it social media and technology that are making us more ‘insular and isolated’? ‘To start at the positive, I've made some really good friends through social media, connected with life-changing friends, but I think overall, there is a rush to judgement. The way information passes, and the negativity, and sort of an envy thing. You know, we all take pictures of ourselves on the top of mountains, but no-one puts out an Instagram photo of them cleaning their own bathroom. And I think that if you don't remind yourself of that, you can be susceptible to the idea that everyone else is climbing a mountain on top of a mountain that day while you're cleaning your bathroom!’ Beautifully put, and a fitting reflection on the wider themes of this long piece, which has been about many things, but at the heart of it is the power and purpose of communication though music. What it means to those who make it, love it and share it: the relationships that come from that and the way the world can be made better, or better coped with, because of music. And what matters a great deal is that two lovely musicians have given me their time to help with this. Amelia I already knew, but Craig I’d never spoken to. And the greatest irony is that I had in my mind that he was some kind of hard-boiled, case-hardened cynic, coated in urban grit. And of course I had that perception because so many of his characters have those qualities – a real rookie error - though it was also, as an untravelled and innocent Englishman, because of his accent! So I asked him about it: did other people from Minneapolis sound like him? ‘Yeah, I think so. I've lived in New York for twenty-two-and-a-half years and I've never opened my mouth and had people say, Oh, you're from New York. But my parents are from Massachusetts. So there's certain things that I say that maybe a third generation Minneapolis person wouldn’t say, certain words. But I definitely have the Midwestern accent. There’s also something that happens to your voice when you're amplifying it and your shout, you know, like trying to get volume out of it. Springsteen was kind of a later discovery for me, but that kind of barking things out is part of it, too.’ Turning back to the latest Hold Steady album, it’s titled ‘The Price of Progress’, and I wanted to explore what that meant to the band and where they saw this album in the wider world. So, what is the price of progress? ‘I think the price of progress on the record is the idea that all this technology, what we've just been talking about, has improved our lives in some way, and certainly made us more efficient, but has also left us kind of reeling. And this age is maybe defined by us trying to catch up culturally and spiritually with the advances that technology has brought. The people on this record are living in that world, and trying to make sense of it.’ ‘The current situation is, I mean, Trump in 2016 spoke to a lot of people that hadn't felt like they'd been spoken to in a long time, and that's his power. I don't think he's very sincere, but I think that if anything's to be learned, well maybe there's a lot of people that don't feel like they're being spoken to. And I think as we get the technology we keep talking about, you start to be able to say, I did win the election, and here's proof, and then you can manufacture proof that looks pretty good. And then there's a lot of people that are excited to believe that, and actually have been only looking at things that suggest that's true. That's very dangerous. I worry. I do think it's dangerous, and I try not to let it… in 2016 I think I got a little too into it, you know, letting it occupy too much of my thoughts. But I do think it's dangerous, and that he works people up absolutely for his own ego which could be very damaging to the country, and to actual individual people, as people get hurt.’ ‘When you're talking about technology, this is the price of progress, right? I mean, we can choose to watch news that only affirms our wishes. If you're on Facebook and the algorithm is serving up only news that is sympathetic to your views, to what you've clicked on before, that gets us here. You know?’ It turns out that the cover tells some of the story. ‘It’s a bank building in Camden, New Jersey. Camden is not a nice place: maybe it was at one point - I think it probably was - but it's obviously a building that was at one point very beautiful, but has fallen in disrepair, which sort of speaks to everything. And one of the things I love about that photo is that most people are going to see it on, like, Spotify as a real, small thing. And it's gonna look like a very regal building to them with the columns and everything. But the people who get it on the vinyl, or even on the CD, will see that it’s boarded up and there's graffiti on it and etc. And I thought that that was worked on at some level.’ ‘There’s also something about being in a band for twenty years, you know? I mean, the price of progress, the price of being in a band of twenty years is that my hearing is not what it used to be! And people with kids have been on tour when their kids’ birthdays have happened, things like that, and relationships are strained sometimes. But… there's a price to going after anything, I think.’ The cover’s fantastic photo clearly works on the level of feeding into the meaning of the songs and the theme of the album, but it also works on the level of one of the key themes of this long article – how sometimes when you look a little closer, you learn a lot more. Which brings us full circle to the beginning of this article, and to a song released just thirteen days after I saw Ian Curtis helped off the stage in Bristol, ‘Atmosphere’. It contains his advice to those meeting any kind of mental challenge: ‘Don’t walk away in silence.’

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In Dreams Begin Responsibilities - Heaven Is Whenever We Can Get Together 4 – ‘When you look a little closer, you learn a lot more.’

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In the fourth and final part of his series on music and mental health, Steve Miles talks to Heavenly’s Amelia Fletcher, on the band and the tragic death of her brother in 1997.

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