Who holds Tomorrow, if it’s Not the One who Made us…

My parents were working-class-made-good textile entrepreneurs. Both English immigrants, they left school early, back in the 1940s, to work. I had grown up in a middle-class, Dublin suburban housing estate.  My parents separated, later to divorce. I had chosen to escape to the presumed safety of a Quaker, co-ed boarding school. Much of outlook was founded in that school, taking me as I was and letting me be.

In boarding school, the three goals in my teen life were to immerse myself in music, write poems and establish female friendships. I was an indisciplined music pupil, I was the only aspiring male poet, and I experienced one very short, on quite short and one long female friendship.

Music was really the only constant in my life away from home. It was important in our family: my dad played jazz on the piano by ear. His parents sang Bach’s oratorios in church choirs. As children, my two older brothers and I were made to study piano and made to join the local Church of Ireland choir. My mother’s musical influence was our on Sunday afternoon, joint-listening to Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony (me crying on reading the sleeve notes of the composition’s tragic history).

At boarding school I learnt piano under a benign teacher, and had vain aspirations to play in the style of Joni Mitchell, and Judee Sill. Having been so musically raised, I constantly listened to the Alan Freedman’s Top Ten Countdown, the innovative John Peel on BBC Radio 1, and the broadcasting pirate stations, like Radio Caroline. To quote my housemaster’s  pertinent words on one term report: “Louis and his (pop) transistor lead a pretty aimless existence…”

A series of short term jobs followed my early quitting of secondary education: cafe kitchen porter; textile factory pattern cutter; offset litho-printer. It was hard to fit in with work-mates seemingly small dreams of disco-dancing and binge-drinking. I retreated into myself and music.

Most of my weekends were spent solitary in my sitting room, smoking French scented cigarettes; decoratively doodling, while listening to repeat plays of revered singer-songwriter musicians.

Confessional music was favoured most and played a central part of my pre-conversion life: the closest to any spurious “salvation” offered by those seventies singer-songwriter saviours. 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 and Judee Sill. Judee’s troubled life, nascent spirituality and lush orchestral songs caught my interest for a while.

In time, I became an over-optimistic, evangelical Christian convert. There was scriptural hope to learn …and much selfishness to unlearn. Christ challenged me to re-find my identity through fellowship with Christians and Bible studies. I immersed myself in this new life with the zeal of the convert.

One day, flicking through the LP covers in a religious bookshop, I saw a cover that showed an abstract plant with fire in the background. It became my personal “burning bush”.  Fireflake was it’s title, Adrian Snell its composer.

I thought – what is this?? I turned it over to read the sleeve notes and saw an incredible quote from Cornish poet, Jack Clemo:

A fire-flake has pierced my silence,

And a tongue responds—too deep

To be greyly solemn, too sure

Of heaven’s glowing heart to let me sleep

Adrian Snell’s ‘Fireflake’ lyrics and piano compositions were (almost) on a par with Joni Mitchell’s thoughtful reflections. His piano playing certain equalled hers. Many of Snell’s lyrics were stark, and his music dramatic, sometimes bleak. I was smacked between the eyes, hooked by such nuanced lyrics, passionately sung to repeat-cascade of dissonant chords, like Judas Song.

I bought that LP, and played it over and over, dumbfounded and delighted. The classical, piano-based tracks had me entranced, the poetic lyrics demanded careful listening. I had found a musically melancholic substitute to my secular singer songwriters at last! Snell was classically trained, like many supergroup members: Yes; Emerson, Lake & Palmer & others. All my music-nerd boxes were ticked in Snell.

I married Liz in 1985. After three years she and I started a family. It was a sweet time for me, being able to refashion my fractured family, after God’s image: my parent’s emotionally fraught pattern would not be copied. Four years passed, after our first born boy, another child was due. All went well, until ten days before my daughter’s birth.

Adrian had just released his concept album – Beautiful, or What?’ – billed as “a thematic pop/rock opera using allegorical tale about handicapped children.

Oh no’, I thought ‘Not another concept album! Yuck!” I gave it one unsympathetic listen and quickly put it aside.

What would I do with this record now?? I certainly don’t want it… as it’s about handicapped kids, I’ll send it to my friend who works in L’Arche, I thought.

When we got the bad news that our second child, a daughter was dead in the womb, I was devastated. With Liz in hospital, just after our stillbirth, I decided to listen again to Adrian Snell’s new composition. Perhaps it can speak to me, I reflected. The hero-child in the song sequence could well have been my child. Perhaps had she been born, she would possibly have been physically or mentally handicapped. What then…?

As I began to think about my daughter’s funeral, I wondered how to present this loss and pain, in a meaningful way. I wanted hymns for her, of course – choosing ‘O the Deep Deep Love of Jesus’ for its deep Slavic-tinged pathos.

I had written a knee-jerk poetic response about her cut-short life. Then I had the idea of contacting Adrian Snell, and asking him for permission to use some of his recent music at our daughter’s funeral. Two tracks on ‘Beautiful or What?’ would make very appropriate entrance / exit music at Holly’s funeral. Adrian quickly and kindly agreed. I was deeply, tearfully touched at such generosity of spirit.

Twenty one years later, those same album tracks were granted permission again. This time, 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.

That video short ended up on an indie-movie dvd about stillbirth, Return to Zero. It was also broadcast on German religious TV.  I was interviewed about Holly and my booklet in the Sunday Independent, a popular Irish broadsheet. Holly changed my life…. and so had Adrian Snell.

I stayed in touch with Adrian from time to time. The vagaries of music downloads, and falling CD sales in the music industry impacted his old-school approach. Inspiration to compose new songs diminished considerably. I peppered him with ideas for songs. He was gracious enough to stay in touch with this over-insistent, blue-sky, Snell enthusiast.

One email reply of his lit a fuse. He hinted that if he could replace his well-worn piano, bought over forty years before, he just might get inspired, again. His current life now in music therapy with children, rather than in Christian music ministry. At that time, I had ended up with undreamt-of financial stability. I was very aware of the biblical responsibility that goes with such blessing.

Money is gifted by God to be equitably and creatively shared with others. I offered to help COVERDALE TRUST https://www.thecoverdaletrust.org/artists with the partial expenses towards a replacement piano for Adrian. Others generously contributed to the spark that I lit.

When the piano salesman in London heard about Adrian’s piano-playing pilgrimage, he knocked £10,000 off the £26,000 purchase price!  In 2013, Adrian went on to record and release ‘Fierce Love’, based on his experiences as music therapist. It was Adrian’s first album after a seven year sabbatical.

The extraordinary range of instruments, central to his music therapy, contribute to the unique soundscape of Fierce Love. It was a privilege to visit to Bath and attend the launch party of that CD. I also visited Three Ways special school, where Adrian works. He uses his music therapy to communicate with severely handicapped children. Seeing that process in action had me quietly crying…any of these profoundly impacted children could have been my daughter, Holly….

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