The year was 1976. I had dropped out of secondary school, due to family fracturing and lack of academic engagement. I was pretty lost in direction. My goals were to immerse myself in music and female friendships. I’d had a small catalogue of sweethearts in my teens and quickly realised that volatile, nubile Pre-Raphelite beauties didn’t hold the answers that I sought.
I had grown up in a middle-class suburban housing estate. My parents were working-class-made-good textile entrepreneurs. Both of them also left school early, in the 1940s.
I had a series of short term jobs. I worked as a cafe kitchen porter, in a back-street textile factory as a pattern cutter, litho-printer. I was hard to fit in with my smoking, swearing and binge-drinking working class work mates. I retreated into myself and music. Most weekends I stayed in my sitting room, smoking French scented cigarettes, and listening over and over to my revered rock LPs.
The fourth job that I landed was my happiest. It was a step up from factories. That job lasted only a year, when the elderly owner died, and the family shut down the shop. However, in that shop entered a ninety year old lady, who had recently started to paint! She shared gospel faith with me and wanted me to go a Cliff Richard / Billy Graham film event, run by a local Plymouth Brethren Hall. I declined. Why would I even consider going watch such a twat?? However, I didn’t mock or disdain that kind-hearted lady. And she didn’t give up on me either. She prayed and schemed to get a young Christian couple to take me on. That worked!
In time, I became an over-optimistic, evangelical Christian convert. A Northern Ireland “plain-spade” evangelist played his part in my first-time commitment. There was lots to learn and unlearn in my life. After all the euphoria, I struggled quite a bit, adjusting to the clap-happy atmosphere of unabashed church life. My background story was darkened by a family murder / suicide in the 1940s, and my parents bitter divorce in the 1970s.
Music was a central part of my pre-conversion life. It was an important part of my uncertain identity. It was the closest to a limited hope, offered by seventies singer-songwriter saviours. Confessional music was favoured most by this lost teen poet. Having started writing poetry at co-ed boarding school, I was entranced by the introverted and sombre Cohen’s ‘Songs From a Room’. Having learned piano I was also drawn to the emotionally-nuanced, feminine perspectives of Joni Mitchell even more.
Now I was being challenged to find my identity in a more apparently-nebulous Christ. At that time, I was working in an evangelical religious bookshop in Dublin. I was paid modestly: bus-fares and sandwiches. That shop sold a victorious-only message. The books and records were flavoured by strident certainties. I immersed myself in this new life with zeal of the convert. I had unwisely traded my earlier, aesthetic musical interest for abstract, little-nuanced rock-hymns by musician-missionaries.
One day, flicking through the LP covers, I saw one cover that showed an abstract plant with fire in the background. It was called ‘Fireflake’ – I thought – what is this?? I turned it over to read the sleeve notes and saw an incredible quote from Jack Clemo, a Cornish poet. I had come across Clemo in one or two Christian magazine articles.
I quickly bought that LP and played it over and over. I was dumbfounded. The poetic, piano-based tracks had me entranced, the lyrics were poetic, the delivery was more downbeat than upbeat. I had found a musically melancholic substitute to my secular singer songwriters at last! Adrian Snell seemed to successfully integrate the broader spiritual quest in well-crafted poetic songs. Snell was classically trained, like many of the members of Yes. What’s not to like? All my critically important boxes were ticked.
Why was music so critically important for me? I was vainly trying to integrate my heart and mind with a culture-clueless Irish Christianity. I had grown up reading New Musical Express, Melody Maker and Rolling Stone. My father was a self-taught jazz pianist, who had privately recorded his own 78 blues disc. Various family members sang in school and church choirs. My brothers and I were made to learn piano, with varying degrees of success.
But rock music was altogether another thing. I was intense enough about music, to take a working day “off” to buy Stevie Wonders ‘Inner-visions’, on release date. My mother was away on business and I reported in “sick” to my employer. I played ‘Innervisions’ on auto-repeat all day. The backstory of Stevie Wonder’s near death and the element of spirit in these songs captivated me.
Adrian Snell’s ‘Fireflake’ lyrics were (almost) on a par with Joni Mitchell’s thoughtful reflections. His piano playing certain equally hers. Many of Snell’s lyrics were stark, and his music was very dramatic, sometimes bleak…
Where can I run to hide myself?
The world has fallen dark
What can I do to help myself
To save me from the dark?
I have tried to kill the light
And now it grows so dark-
I was smacked between the eyes, I was hooked by such awkwardly painful lyrics, all passionately sung to a repeated cascade of slightly dissonated chords. Wow!
I followed Adrian’s musical career with interest and bought each record as soon as it was released. But my interest cooled when some of his concept albums appeared. In particular, his LP about Mary, an anathema for any biblically-literate Irish evangelical. Aesthetically-ugly Marian statues abounded in Ireland, both in churches and outside.
But all was not lost, my wife-to-be, bought me a copy of ‘The Passion’. It was recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra. It had an extravagant and beautiful gate-fold sleeve and booklet of lyrics and drawings of the gospel drama. I regained audio interest in Adrian. I saw him perform at Greenbelt, as well as in Dublin’s National Concert Hall, in the late 70s.
With Adrian’s lighter-touch more “commercial” albums my audio-ardour waned again. One track ’Moments of Eternity’ on his on his album, ‘The Cut’ grabbed my attention. Its dramatic drumming and complicated keyboard structure helped me keep faith with Adrian’s output.
I had married in 1985, and after three years my wife and I started a family. It was a sweet time for me, to have a boy, being able to refashion family in God’s good image, rather than in my family’s emotionally-violent fraught pattern. Four family years passed, and soon another child was due to be born. All went well, until ten days before my daughter was due. We patiently waited…
Adrian had just released his ‘Beautiful, or What?’ Oh flip, not another “concept” rock opera album, I quietly groaned! It was reviewed enthusiastically in the UK but was reluctantly listened to by me. It was “a thematic pop/rock opera which uses the allegorical tale of a girl and her rag doll to bring a profound message about handicapped children and our attitude towards them”. I gave it one unsympathetic listen and quickly put it aside.
“Oh dear, what will I do with this recording now?? I certainly don’t want it. …I know… seeing as it is about handicapped kids, I will send it to my friend, who works in L’Arche”.
We soon got the bad news that our daughter, Holly, was dead in the womb. In between tearful hospital visits and vigil time alone, I decided to listen to this new composition, in the light of our devastating news. perhaps it can speak to me. As I listened, I thought, this could have been my child, physically or mentally handicapped. What then…?
My family’s psychic foundation was already over-burdened by mid-WW2 era suicides and the murder of a young relative. Then there was my parent’s acrimonious divorce. To add to that crying-catalogue, my wife and I now had the trauma of a stillbirth…
What other accidental existential pain is lurking?? Is this not enough, already? But little did I know that God, and his angels of empathy were waiting in the wings of this new domestic drama.
As I began to think about my daughter’s funeral, I wondered how to present this loss and pain in a meaningful way. I had written a rather wooden poem about her short life. I wanted hymns for her, of course, and chose ‘O the Deep Deep Love of Jesus’ for its deep Slavic-tinged pathos.
I had the inspired idea of contacting Adrian Snell, and asking him for permission to use two tracks of ‘Beautiful or What?’ I thought that those tracks would make very appropriate entrance / exit music at this funeral. Adrian quickly and kindly agreed. I was deeply, tearfully touched at such generosity of spirit.
Twenty one years later, those same musical tracks were also granted permission, to be used on my video-short about Holly, ‘Goodbye, Au Revoir Slan’. My video-short was to “celebrate” her would-have-been 21st birthday. I had always wanted a daughter. I had long-associated with the tender-gender, more easily than alpha macho-males.
That Vimeo video short was illustrated by my Russian friend, and artist, Katya Zhu. She had been through her own personal life pain and, although not particularly engaged with children, managed to convey the right spirit in her images.
Holly had changed my life….and so had Adrian Snell, and also Katya Zhu. That video ended up on Minnie Driver’s indie-movie dvd about stillbirth, called Return to Zero. It was broadcast on German religious TV. To top all that, I was interviewed about Holly and my booklet in the Sunday Independent (readership 900,000).
I stayed in touch with Adrian Snell from time to time. The vagaries of music downloads, and falling CD sales in the music industry, impacted Adrian’s more old-school approach. His inspiration to compose new songs diminished quite considerably. I peppered him with ideas for songs. He was gracious enough to stay in touch with this over-insistent blue-sky, Snell music enthusiast.
One email reply lit a fuse. He hinted that if he could replace his well-worn piano, bought over forty years before, he might just get inspired again. His current life was in music therapy, with children, rather than in Christian music ministry.
Around that time, I had ended up with undreamt-of wealth. I was very aware of the biblical responsibility that goes with that blessing. Money is not ours to hoard in banks. I offered to help a bit in the cost of a replacement piano, for Adrian.
When the piano salesman in London heard about Adrian’s piano-playing pilgrimage he knocked £10,000 off the £26,000 purchase price! I’m sure that Adrian was gobsmacked at such blessing. In 2013, he went on to record and release ‘Fierce Love’ . That cd was mostly based on his experiences as a music therapist. It was Adrian’s first album after a seven year sabbatical.
The extraordinary range of instruments that are central to his music therapy contribute to the unique soundscape of the album. It was a privilege to visit to Bath and attend the launch party of that CD. I also visited the special school, Three Ways, where Adrian works., teaching music therapy class to profoundly handicapped children. Seeing that had me quietly crying in the back of one of those classes…Any of these profoundly impacted children could have been my daughter, Holly….
In early 2017, Adrian set up a crowd fund site to re-record his ‘Alpha and Omega’. This is a project, a journey of discovery along the roots of his Christian faith. The concept of that recording tries to grasp the meaning of conflict in the world, specifically WWII and the Holocaust, in light of his Christian faith.
Though I have moved away from earlier firm evangelical certainties, I decided to commit a bit of kick-start cash to this latest Snell project. Adrian is an oft-overlooked contributor to meaningful Christian music.
Besides, where would many minds and hearts be in the absence of such a thoughtful musician? Personally, I can safely say that Adrian’s music has made be part of who I am, and what I believe…
It’s the passion, the poignancy, the piano “singing true” along with the appropriate orchestration that engages my heart, soul and mind. Finally, It’s the redemption-reminding lyrics, calling aliens and strangers home:
“Who holds tomorrow, if its not the One who made us…”?
All this makes Christ so much more compelling, so right an answer, so compassionate of doubt and failures…and more…