End Of The Line

A day I have long anticipated has come to pass. Today, I received a copy of Fish’s final album, Weltschmerz.

I say “long anticipated”, and that’s true, because Fish has been working on this album for some time now, and some of the songs escaped from the studio before the album was released. I suppose back in the day we would have called them singles, and marvelled over the various formats they would have been available in. I’ve come to so enjoy the total immersion experience of listening to a new album by a favourite artist without hearing a note of it first that I’ve studiously avoided hearing the songs posted online as much as possible, although naturally I am a fan and therefore weak-willed: I did succumb to the lure of YouTube and heard two of the songs from the album before the album was released (although in my defence, I think I only heard those songs about twice each before studiously refusing to listen to them again until the album arrived).

I could have claimed, with equal accuracy, that the arrival of the album was bittersweet. Why? Because it’s Fish’s last album. The idea that a writer that has soundtracked my life for a little over 35 years could be making his last record is cause for dismay. When you love something, when you really look forward to the next time you get to enjoy it, it’s only human to wish that you could keep looking forward to it forever. In a very real way, my enjoyment of Fish’s music never will be over, because I own the records, so I can always dig them out and listen to them. But there’s also a sadness that comes with the knowledge that you’ll never be sitting down with a new album, a new collection of songs that you don’t know yet, but which you will most probably come to love in the fullness of time. A new album is like Shakespeare’s “undiscovered country”, a thing that exists but which is unknowable until you experience it for yourself. Now I’ve heard Weltschmerz, I feel like an explorer who has been to every country, travelled every road, seen everything that there is to see – at least on Planet Fish. It’s a strange feeling; a sense of missing something that can’t be missed because it doesn’t exist. All the holes have been filled. Planet Fish is there to experience in its totality, and There Is No More.

My first experience of Fish’s music is still seared in my memory, even if the exact date is not. It was 1984, and as usual I was glued to the radio every Friday night for Tommy Vance’s Friday Rock Show. I used to sit in front of my stereo, fascinated by the cavalcade of great music that passed before my ears; I more often than not taped the show, too, so I could listen back to any songs I particularly liked – I maintained a intricate paper-based system of listing what was on each tape, and only erased tapes (or, more usually, recorded over the top of them) once I’d managed to secure, by whatever means, a copy of the record that Tommy had played. I was still reliant on pocket money at this point, but friends raided their parents’ record collections, albums were copied and traded, and even back then, most of my disposable income went on music, books or computer games. (Guess which three things still absorb the bulk of my disposable income? That’s right.)

On the Friday in question, Tommy played a very unusual song. It was quite long, but I sat there, utterly enthralled, through the whole thing. It was Marillion, with a live version of Forgotten Sons, their song about the tragedy of young servicemen killed in a futile war against the IRA. Musically it was amazing; lyrically it was a whole new world for me, in that it was gritty and thoroughly rooted in reality – a reality that we were living day to day in Thatcher’s Britain. Once the show was over, I rewound my tape and played it again. And again. And again. I played that song over and over and over, until I swear the tape was visibly stretching. A little over a week later, I took all my available pocket money to Complete Discery, our local record store, and bought myself a cassette copy of Marillion’s live album, Real To Reel – the source of the recording Tommy had played.

And so an obsession was born. Let’s not be shy about it – it was an obsession. It was more than just really enjoying a band; I ate, drank, breathed and slept Marillion in a way I very rarely had with a band before (Kate Bush, Pink Floyd and Jean-Michel Jarre were probably the only other artists whose music I had set upon quite so voraciously prior to this point). By early 1985, I’d collected everything the band had released, most of it in several formats. Then 1985 arrived, and with it, Marillion’s world-conquering album Misplaced Childhood. For a few brief years, the underground misfits that had made Script For A Jester’s Tear were on-trend, and their trajectory seemed destined to take them into rock and roll Valhalla.

Of course, it was not to be: an acrimonious split between Fish and the rest of the band led to the two charting very different trajectories. I so loved the different things that Fish and his ex-bandmates brought to the table that I continued to pick up everything they released. I loved Marillion no less, quite honestly: their new frontman Steve Hogarth was, and remains, an incredible vocalist and a gifted lyricist, and the band’s steadily diversifying sound never lacked for adventure. Fish, for his part, continued to deliver what I loved and admired about him as an artist and as a person: wonderful, colourful lyrics that spoke very powerfully about the modern world. Fish was unashamedly political, and never shy about tackling controversial or difficult issues: his first debut album, Vigil In A Wilderness Of Mirrors contains a fabulous song about domestic abuse (Family Business) which in retrospect was ahead of its time. The opening track from the album, Vigil, is about as masterful a commentary on Tory Britain as I could conceive of anyone writing: it still rings so true today that it could have been written yesterday.

Over the years – like any long-term fan – I had my ups and downs with both Marillion and Fish, of course; when you’re so besotted with something, you do sometimes react poorly to perceived disappointments, especially when you’re young. My white-hot fandom of all things Fish persisted until 1999s Raingods With Zippos (strangely enough, still one of my favourite Fish albums). Fish was not well; a combination of bad habits on the road and a lingering illness or malaise (something Fish himself observed at the time, referring to it as ‘The Fog’) led to a string of gig cancellations, and disappointing performances when the gigs did go ahead. It all came to a bit of a head at a show at Wolverhampton on the Raingods tour, where Fish demolished more than one bottle of wine onstage, despite appearing quite ill, and vocally far from his best. One of his set pieces on that tour was the epic Plague Of Ghosts, a semi-autobiographical affair that addressed ‘The Fog’ – it’s a staggering piece of work, and possibly still my favourite thing he’s ever recorded. When he appeared to have an on-stage heart attack part way through the show, it was all too easy to believe that it was real. Although the band played well, and other fans seemed happy enough, I left the show with a sense that something was amiss. In retrospect, it was perhaps with a sense of anger that Fish had made theatre out of what I was increasingly feeling was a very real problem, but naturally I was just too close to it at the time.

It wasn’t just the shows, either. There seemed to be increasing friction between Fish and his ex-bandmates, after an earlier thaw. Interviews with Fish seemed only to inflame the situation, and given my fondness for Marillion, such things only served to stoke my feeling of injustice. I remember being so irate at one such display that I actually said to a fellow devotee that I “hated” Fish. Of course, this wasn’t actually true – I hated the situation; I despaired of Fish’s ability to look after himself; I was frustrated by the perceived problems that both camps were experiencing as the millennium arrived (Marillion, having let EMI behind them, were reduced to tiny club gigs by this time), despite making what I felt was some of their best work. (It was only a year or so later that another press interview, this time with Steve Hogarth, left me similarly disappointed and upset. It was a salutory lesson in the way that interviews could be formed in such a way as to manufacture conflict – a lesson I’ve never forgotten. I take anything controversial or antagonistic said in an interview with a pinch of salt these days.)

For all my misgivings, I kept buying everything Fish did – at least, I did until his 2003 album, Field Of Crows. I heard it for the first time at a friend’s house, and had been looking forward to it immensely. I was so disappointed that I never actually bought it; for the first time it occurred to me that perhaps Fish and I were simply drifting in different directions and that it was time for me to let go. This was a deeply sobering thought. I never lost the urge to play Fish’s other work, though, however many misgivings I might have had about his latest work – it just made hearing it all the more bittersweet. I buried my misgivings and determined to enjoy the music that I already cherished.

Then 2005 happened. It was a difficult year for me on all fronts, and after months of barely being able to listen to music at all – something I’ve since come to recognise as a period of depression – I found immense solace in an old friend: Marillion’s Misplaced Childhood. As it happened, Fish had just taken the album out on the road; I had missed the tour itself, but out of curiosity and a sense of nostalgia, I picked up a DVD filmed on the tour. Sure, it had its shortcomings – Fish’s band didn’t have the same familiarity with the music, so there were some rough edges – but the vibe was certainly there, and seeing it performed in full like that (I was too young to see the original tour Marillion had mounted to support it) brought that early passion rushing back. So much so that we decided to do something we had never done before and go to one of Fish’s convention weekends. Our friend Joe was coming over from Canada to go along, too, so we played host and made the long drive due north to enjoy a Fishy adventure. It was a wonderful weekend, it truly was; we enjoyed re-connecting with some people I’d not seen in quite some time after being a gig regular in the early 90s, and even the occasional issue (like the football ground’s facilities being closed to those of us who camped nearby, contrary to the plan – communal showers at the local leisure centre beckoned. Now that’s how you get to know your fellow fans!) didn’t faze anyone. There was a wonderfully good-natured vibe from everyone: the hallmark of a good convention, as we’ve found with Marillion and indeed other bands since. The last night was a full performance of Misplaced Childhood. It was like a sauna inside the venue, and I remember dancing like a mad bugger throughout White Feather, sandwiched between two sweaty, stripped-to-the-waist Norwegians. It was a rebirth in more than one sense.

Since then, Fish’s new releases have been an ever-increasing joy. 2007’s 13th Star, written in the wake of Fish’s messy break-up with his then fiancee, was a dark, powerful but emotional fare, and he surpassed even that with 2013’s wonderful A Feast Of Consequences, which I came to think of as perhaps his finest record: lyrically it was sublime, as usual, but it possessed a strange new maturity. Songs like The Other Side Of Me and The Great Unravelling were some of the most personal and revealing lyrics he had ever penned, and – strange as it may sound, after spending decades with his words ringing in my ears – as a result I felt closer to the man than I ever had before. It was plain that his worldview and mine were broadly similar, strikingly so in some respects, but even though Fish had always written about himself as well as the world around him, I felt that he’d never done so with such clarity of expression, such openness of emotion. After all those years, it felt like a new chapter, and that in itself was tremendously exciting to me.

It wasn’t long before Fish started talking about Weltschmerz, and it was clear pretty early on that this was to be his swansong. To say I had mixed emotions at this news would be an understatement. On the one hand, I felt an impending loss of something which had become precious to me; something made all the more bittersweet as it seemed I had just reached a new plateau of understanding with this writer who had so moved and inspired me over the years, a new sympatico that elevated his entire journey, one which I could more clearly see now was as much one of self-discovery as it had been a commentary on the world and the people who lived in it. On the other hand, I felt strangely more able to let go of that; just as Fish himself had obviously made peace with his decision to step away from his cyclical musical existence, I too felt more connected to the person behind all that musical magic. We don’t treat our musical icons particularly well. Too often we place the burden of our expectations and the weight of our moral judgements on people no better equipped to deal with that kind of pressure than ourselves. The pressure they must feel under the yoke of the crippling faith provided by their listeners must be staggering. No-one can hope to pass such a test. That Fish’s musical career has lasted this long is testament to his passion, but also to his determination and his talent, when it could have ended so many times. As the man himself says in his song Raw Meat, “I’ll always have the strength to carry on.” And in deciding to end things here, on his own terms, he’s demonstrating it once again.

For Weltschmerz is clearly intended as the end. Everything about the album, from the artwork, to the extended text Fish provided for the deluxe edition package, to the thank yous in the inlay, and to the subject matter of the songs themselves, suggests that this is the last scene in this story that began with Marillion’s Market Square Heroes back in 1982. The album tackles current affairs (Man With A Stick, The Grace Of God, the title track) but also provides more personal fare (Walking On Eggshells, Garden Of Remembrance, Waverley Steps) that deal respectively with a fractious relationship, senile dementia and a man who had great success, lost everything, then chooses to walk away from the debris and find his happiness in a simpler existence – if that sounds vaguely autobiographical, it is not without cause. At this early stage, however, my favourite tracks may be Rose Of Damascus, an epic and wonderfully empathetic tale of someone ripped from their life and forced to flee as a refugee, and Little Man What Now?, a beautifully and sensitively written song about how the dispiriting state of the world can impact on the lives of ordinary people. This one hit me especially hard, as I recognised myself in it. There’s no question that I feel that despair at what we’re doing to ourselves quite acutely at times; I think back to the sense of hope and determination that pervaded the country as it fought its way out of years of Tory dominance and emerged, blinking, into a new era. It wasn’t long before the storm clouds gathered again, but I remember that time with fondness, especially these days where there seems like there’s little hope to be found. Cunningly, the title track of the album is the last song on the record, and it showcases the true horror of what we’re doing to ourselves whilst also ringing with a grim determination to put an end to our downward spiral – the sort of rallying cry that I for one badly needed to hear.

I sat on my couch in the lounge tonight, the sun slowly sinking under the horizon, with the album playing through in full, following the words in the lavishly illustrated book that the deluxe edition of the album came packaged in (and I should probably devote another post singing the praises of Fish’s long-term collaborator, artist Mark Wilkinson, and all he has done to illuminate and enhance Fish’s work; his work certainly merits it). I found myself in tears several times; I also found myself laughing, punching the air with delight, and struck dumb with awe and delight as a particularly satisfying piece of imagery landed with the power of a knockout blow. Fish’s use of language is extraordinary; I can’t emphasise that enough. I’m a fan, of course I love what he does, but if anything the passing of time has enhanced his gift, and this set of songs is an embarrassment of riches, lyrically and musically. It is the perfect swansong; it ties a perfect bow on his body of work, ending with a ray of hope in the darkness – just how I might have hoped it would all ultimately end. It’s such a perfect end that I can’t imagine how anything further could possibly enhance Fish’s exit, stage left, on his terms, having delivered an album that stands proudly alongside anything he has done in the past. Would that we all could step away after delivering such a perfect coup de grace.

I’ll be listening to Fish and Marillion’s music until the day I too have to leave this world. Their work has been a powerful force for good in my life, not just musically and lyrically, but in terms of the places, people and ideas that it has led me to. My life would be immeasurably different, and less rich, without this music I discovered by accident, listening to Tommy Vance’s Friday Rock Show. Offering my thanks for the music in the face of all this seems a very poor payment for the life’s work of everyone involved, but I offer it nonetheless, and to one man in particular as he has chosen to end his journey here. To bastardize a slogan coined by another of my favourite writers: so long, and thanks for everything, Fish. Enjoy your retirement, when that final show arrives (and it’s entirely possible I may be cheering you on from the front row). You have more than earnt it, and you have my eternal gratitude.

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