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Review: Playing the Bass with Three Left Hands

11 Mar


By Rhea H. Boyden

I am lying on my bed relaxing and listening to Spacemen 3’s 1989 album ‘Playing With Fire’ through my headphones. This is the first time I have ever heard this album and I am intrigued. I listen to it a second and a third time and with each play it grows on me more and more. I especially love the song ‘How does it feel?’ I have been prompted to listen to this album because I have just read Will Carruthers’ stunning memoir of his time as a bassist in Spacemen 3 and Spiritualized, two pioneering British psychedelic bands from the 80s and early 90s.

‘How does it feel?’ I love this song and it really makes me think about my feelings after reading Will’s book. It is a book that takes you on a magical rollercoaster ride of feelings. At one moment I am laughing til my sides ache and the next I feel anger at the manner in which Will and his band members were treated by mainstream British society and the Thatcher government of the 80s. This anger is then calmed by reading on as Will writes beautifully, poetically and philosophically on a host of topics, and then I am laughing again as he tells yet another anecdote in his fantastic, self-deprecating wit and style. This book is superb. I am hooked. It makes me feel everything and I want to learn more.

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Musician, author and bookmaker Will Carruthers

I became acquainted with Will back in 2011 in Berlin. We lived in the same neighbourhood and had some mutual friends in the music scene and I saw him perform a few times. I have since been following his adventures as he moves around between Donegal, Ireland, Iceland, Berlin and other places. Now that I have read his memoirs I am intrigued by his multiple talents and am studying his work and listening to his music. ‘Can you tell me a bit more about the beginning of this song, ‘How does it feel?’ I ask Will on the phone. He fires back without hesitation: ‘Yes, it is a Vox starstreamer guitar using a built-in effect called a repeater.’ I tell him I would not have even known it was a guitar if he hadn’t told me. I clearly have a lot to learn. Quite apart from providing me with the technical descriptions of instruments, Will is a man who can write about music so beautifully which is refreshing and breathtaking to read in ‘Playing the Bass with Three Left Hands.’

Describing playing a gig in the north of England, Will writes: ‘I took myself, sliding, up to the top octave on the bass and held it for a perilously long time, until that high thin note hid itself in the drone, and when I ran back down the neck, the bass came surging up like a shark out of the deep blue sea.’ He writes about how well Spacemen 3 were received in the north of England: ‘Maybe they understood drugs and desperation more completely up there.’ Maybe indeed.

Will writes candidly and openly on many topics including his and the band’s drug use. It was part of the subculture they lived in as they struggled to survive in Thatcher’s Britain: ‘We weren’t very well adjusted to the prevailing reality of our times,’ he writes. Drugs and making music were his escape, especially, from the drudgery and repetition of factory life in Britain. He worked an exhausting night shift in a sheet metal factory in Birmingham ‘putting the same bend in five thousand identical strips of metal.’ His book details the many jobs he has held over the years as a labourer, builder and handyman – digging ditches and hauling buckets of cement. Living hand to mouth, going into debt and then trying to climb out of debt by cleaning windows, all the while, his love of playing music being the passion that sustains him through hard times. His descriptions of British politics of the era are spot on: ‘The deathknell for post-war optimism had been sounded and we were witness to the breaking of the social contract in favour of personal gain, war and hate. Despite this, we were somehow hopeful in our despair.’


One of Will’s exquisite hand stitched books

Living hand to mouth and maintaining hope is challenging indeed, especially when you are a touring band and decent, cheap food is hard to come by. This book has many parts that are laugh-out-loud funny, but Will’s descriptions of some of the dreadful British food he encounters are hilarious. When invited by his bandmates for dinner he describes the roast pork he is served: ‘The piece of pig had been cooked beyond the limits of endurance and lay in the puddle of congealing treacle sauce as though it were undergoing some advanced form of culinary rigor mortis. It is said that we should not speak ill of the dead, so how then should we speak of the ill-cooked dead? This was a pig that had died twice, the first time at the hands of a slaughterman, and the second time of embarrassment at the indignities it had been forced to endure on the plate.’

With food like this who wouldn’t take drugs and escape into music for nourishment? In another chapter Will describes being stoned and playing at an arts centre in London. In this stunning chapter Will gets to the core and essence of what music does to your perception of time: ‘Spectral shapes, motifs and melodic archetypes drift in and disappear, while the occasional mythical beast emerges from the ocean of drone…and the drift of time is forgotten within the boundaries of limitless sound.’ Throughout his book, Will references having a strange and unique relationship with the passing of time whilst playing a gig and this has inspired me to read more about what other philosophers have to say on this topic. Pioneering American philosopher Susanne Langer (1895-1985) writes the following: ‘The elements of music are moving forms of sound; but in their motion nothing is removed. The realm in which tonal entities move is a realm of pure duration. Like its elements, however, this duration is not an actual phenomenon. It is not a period – ten minutes or half an hour- but it is something radically different from the time in which our public and practical life proceeds.’

How one segment of Will’s public and practical life proceeds when he is not performing music is summed up in his meeting with a dole officer who is challenging his claim to a payment of benefits. ‘Mr. Carruthers,’ the dole officer questions him, ‘What do you see your role in society as being?’ Will goes on the defensive to this question and asks the dole officer what his role in society is and that he simply wants the small government benefits that he is entitled to. This dole officer has very likely never considered how challenging life can be for people who are attempting, against all odds, to lead a life that is more artistically, environmentally, aesthetically and architecturally satisfying than what was on offer in the British towns of Rugby (Will’s hometown) Coventry or Middlesborough. Will’s description of the polluting chemical factories and hideous architecture of these towns are yet another impressive and well-researched part of this memoir.


Hand carved lino for handmade books by Will Carruthers

A further chapter details how Will receives a green bolt of yew for his birthday. He has had a few lessons from a character who he refers to as Elron the Bowmaker on how to make a bow. He becomes fixated on the task at hand: ‘I was prepared for an epic revenge story of tragic proportions. I set about my task of making my weapon like a man quietly possessed. I felt wronged and felt only vengeance could make it right.’ I had to read this chapter twice before I understood that the enemy was an imaginary foe. I asked Will about it. ‘I deliberately made that part vague,’ was his response. And now I am beginning to see why. There is no one single enemy that you could possibly shoot the arrow at to make yourself feel better and so it is better to keep making good art and music than resorting to vengeance. This is the role of the artist after all, to make life a little more colourful, bearable and infuse it with meaning and emotion. Will’s wise words are arrows enough. I am reminded of an article by Maria Popova as she writes about Susan Sontag’s philosophy: ‘Sontag said: ‘Words mean, words point, they are arrows stuck in the rough hide of reality.’ Popova continues by saying: ‘If words are the arrow, we ourselves, our interior landscapes, our outward actions – the authenticity of our lives – are the bow.’

It is the authenticity of Will’s life that make his stories so compelling. ‘I never used that bow for anything except entertainment. In the end I chose music instead of revenge, creativity instead of destruction and something else instead of money.’ he writes.

Will is currently back in Berlin making books from his beautiful handmade lino prints. He stitches each book himself and is making stunning boxed editions as well. ‘So how many have you made so far?’ I asked. ‘About 160 and I am hoping to make about 300 in total before I leave Berlin again,’ he told me. ‘Playing the Bass with Three Left Hands’ is certainly a book that deserves a beautiful handmade cover.

A hand stitched copy of Will’s book can be ordered on his Squarespace website

Books also available on Amazon.
Photos courtesy of Will Carruthers
Photo of Will Carruthers by Francesca Sara Cauli.

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