‘Why are you wearing that copper diving helmet and carrying an umbrella?’ asked the bald professor from the opposite side of the table.
I opened the visor. ‘I’m not,’ I told him.
He clicked his pen once, twice, three times and snorted through his nose. ‘Tell me again how you got here,’ he said.
My shoulders slumped. How many times did they want to hear the same story. There was a cliff. A floating camper van. One minute I was drifting on the ocean and the next I was here. In the hospital. ‘Shhhh,’ I said. ‘Can you hear that?’
He cocked his bald head to one side and sniffed the air. ‘I’m sorry, hear what?’
An acoustic guitar was being strummed in the distance. Americana drums rolled. Piano chords rang out. And there was a voice. A voice of the earth and dirt and fire. ‘It’s coming from the air vent,’ I told him and pointed up at the wall behind his head. ‘It sounds like Indie Rock, only…’
‘You realise this is all in your imagination?’ he said.
‘Only there’s something else,’ I mumbled, hearing the singer, the words as clear as if they were written in the air in front of my face. ‘Do you like Indie Rock?’ I asked him.
The professor sat back in his seat and crumpled his brow. ‘My taste is eclectic,’ he said. ‘I like most things.’
‘That sounds a bit grey to me,’ I said. ‘I like people who know what they like, who don’t fuck around with music, who wear their transparent hearts on their sleeve.’ I pointed the umbrella at him, like a gun. ‘You clearly keep your heart safely in your pocket.’
‘I think this session is over,’ he said, unimpressed, and he called for the orderly.
‘La la la,’ I said.
It was raining when I returned to the ward and the window beside my bed was leaking. I told the orderly there was a puddle on the floor and if the puddle got any worse we would all drown. ‘Yes, yes,’ he said. And then he went back to his chair to do his crossword.
The music was getting louder. I pressed my helmeted head to the window and asked myself what had changed? A drum like a heartbeat. Acoustic guitar notes like raindrops splashing on the ground, and then there was that voice again. The voice of earth and dirt and fire, part human, part animal, causing my transparent heart to beat even harder on my sleeve. Now it was raining from my eyes and I remembered what had changed. Somebody turned the contrast down on the world. The hospital gardens were navy blue. My white pyjamas looked grey. I laughed at my ridiculous back story and the song exploded into life, guitars chiming while I danced through the puddle and splashed across the ward. There was an old man in the corner with a shock of white hair. He insisted on wearing a lab coat over his grey pyjamas and he kept telling anyone who would listen that he wasn’t an artist. Or a brain surgeon. I picked him up and waltzed him down a corridor, following the song, music that seemed to be bursting at the seams. ‘It’s Indie Rock,’ I said to the old man. ‘But it’s something else as well. Something…’
‘I’m not an artist!’ cried the old man with two left feet, terrified of dancing.
The orderly crept up behind me and jammed a needle into my shoulder.
When I awoke I could hear a new song coming from the air vents, even louder than before (“Woe Is You”). I looked around. The old man was frantically sketching formulas in the air (the hospital staff having previously confiscated all his pens after he decimated 17 rolls of toilet paper). The orderly was sitting at his table, stumped by his crossword. The song was instantly epic with slow thrashing electric guitars, building and building to a crescendo upon an unshakeable foundation of piano and drums. For a moment, my mind was like the jumping needle on a scratched record, perceiving those five minutes of song over and over again, and each time it got bigger and bolder, until it became one of my favourite songs of 2014.
And of course there was the voice. The first time I heard it back in the professor’s office, it sounded familiar. I’d heard that raspy, battle-scarred tone in a thousand bars across America, fronting a thousand unremarkable bands across America, Jeff Buckley impersonators perched on wobbly bar stools crooning “Hallelujah”. But the more I listened, the less familiar this particular voice became, so much so that I wondered if it was the same voice each time I heard the song.
I beckoned the old man across and gestured at the air vent. ‘Here Doc, help me up,’ I whispered.
He glanced back nervously towards the orderly while I clambered on his shoulders and pulled myself up into vent. As I was pulling the grate shut behind me, taking care not to clatter my helmet against the frame, the old man looked up at me. ‘I can hear it too,’ he whispered. ‘They don’t want us to acknowledge it though. They want to choose what we put in our ears. They’re scared of the music being made by the little people. Music from the little people can move us through space and time.’ He was getting increasingly animated the more he talked, so much so that I hurried to shut the vent in case he drew the attention of the orderly. ‘The band you can hear are called “Hunter and Wolfe”,’ said the old man as the grate clicked back into place and I began to shuffle up the claustrophobic ventilation shaft.
I heard the bells of an old musical box and the strumming of an acoustic guitar up ahead, so I shuffled through the darkness towards it. The song was called “Even Odds” and it reminded me of the Fleet Foxes. “I will never leave you alone” sang that voice while piano notes romped beyond it and I understood how important the intricate piano and guitar lines were to the record. The voice, ever-changing, dominated Hunter and Wolfe’s body of sound like the friendly face of an old friend, but the instruments were the bones beneath the surface, the sophisticated skeletal structure holding the body together. From the moment I’d first become of aware of the songs playing in the air ducts, they’d gotten progressively more impressive, the stylistic and tonal range granting retrospective authenticity to the opening upbeat numbers.
I tumbled from the ventilation shaft at the other end, out into a dimly lit and large circular room with a small stage set at the heart of it. Two men sat on the stage, wearing identical copper diving helmets. One was finger-picking his umbrella. The other was singing into his. The song was called “All My Might” and it was so beautiful and stripped back that it became daunting to describe. I thought of Elliott Smith and I thought of Beirut and I thought “If this was a Beirut song then this would be my favourite Beirut song” and I thought “Elliott Smith would have been proud of a song like this”. All around the circular room sat patients who had climbed up through the ventilation shafts on their wards, following the music, and were now sitting there in their diving helmets, clutching their umbrellas, quietly awestruck. A pin dropped on the other side of the room while the intricate notes from the umbrella rang out. These were songs of relationships, broken, mended, breaking, mending. These were words for all of us to silently digest inside the protective cells of our cumbersome helmets.
And as the notes came to a close and we drew our own conclusions, several more pins dropped out of the wall on the far side of the room and a sturdy looking man with a pock-marked face stood there in the outline of a doorway. He was wearing a boilersuit, some kind of pest control, and holding an electric drill. We could see that outside the rain had turned to snow and a chilly wind swept the flakes into the room. As Hunter and Wolfe launched into “Please”, a bluesy ballad that Joe Cocker would love to have wrapped his lungs around, the pock-marked man stepped forward and introduced himself. ‘My name is Robot Dave Bukowski,’ he said in a mechanical voice, ‘and I am here to set you free.’
Seconds later we were piling through the door in the wall and staggering across the hospital car park as “Please” concluded. I looked around at the patients in their helmets, falling forwards under the weight, dropping their umbrellas that blew across the snow. “Paris, Ohio” kicked in, an up-tempo modern guitar and piano-led song, somewhere on the rock spectrum between the Strokes and Radiohead, with an “I’m coming home” chorus that spurred my feet into moving forward. Now the hospital staff were spilling from the doors of the institute, rugby tackling and sedating anyone they could get their hands on. Dogs were barking. Lights were flashing. Alarms were ringing. I hit the 10ft perimeter wire fence and turning my umbrella upside down, hooked the handle over the top of it and heaved myself up. ‘They’re getting away!’ screamed a voice, and as I jumped down on the other side, I looked back and saw the bald professor flailing around on his knees in the snow. So I waved at him. And kept running.
4 days later…
The busy cafeteria hummed and clanked with love and life and loss. I stood in front of the payphone, still wearing the diver’s helmet and fished the last coin from my pocket, turning it over in my hand. I remembered the words of the pointy headed man. I was supposed to phone my editor at Moon Crumb Magazine and report in. It was very important; urgent even. I took a deep breath and walked away from phone, over to the jukebox where I stuffed the coin in and flicked through the records until I found what I was looking for. “Days and Works” by Hunter and Wolfe. I selected track 8 of 9. “Somebody New”. A vaguely baroque track with a healthy dose of Highway 61-era Dylan. I sat back at my table by the window and poured myself another cup of black tea. As a guitar strummed and the increasingly unfamiliar voice ignited a glow in my chest cavity, my eyes flitted between the other patrons in the cafe, lost in conversation, their winter scarves slung across the backs of their seats. And every so often, insulated by the crowd, there was someone like me, with a copper diving helmet on their head and an umbrella in their hand, although nobody seemed to notice them or care. Perhaps they didn’t even realise themselves.
Closing track “We Both Know” began to play. Like “Even Odds” it reminded me of The Longpigs and I desperately wanted to tell someone, mainly to see if anyone could remember that band, only there was no one to tell, there was just me and my now lukewarm tea. Out in the streets, the snow had turned to sludge on the sidewalk and people hurried from one place to the next. Some of them wore winter scarves around their necks, and some of them wore copper diving helmets and carried umbrellas. I was certain, in my transparent heart that I wore on my sleeve, that there was something for all of them in this album. It was “Indie Rock”, only it was much, much more than that too.
Finally “Days and Works” drew to a close with the voice on its own, multi-layered entrancing harmonies that again reminded me of the Fleet Foxes’ contemporary take on classic song structure, offering a glimpse that for Hunter and Wolfe this album might be a joyous, considered and consummate collection of recordings, but at the same time perhaps it is just scratching the surface of what these two guys are capable of.
I drained the last of my tea and gazed out of the cafe window as a vehicle pulled up outside. It was an odd looking camper van with bits of seaweed poking out through the hubcaps and bumpers and the driver was a pointy headed man with plastic looking skin. He didn’t look up from behind the wheel. I grabbed my umbrella and went outside, climbing up into the passenger seat. ‘Did you call your editor?’ he asked me, staring into space.
‘Yes,’ I lied.
‘Good,’ he said and he started the engine at the second attempt. After a short while down the road he asked me, ‘Where have you been?’
‘Around,’ I said.
‘What’s with the helmet and the umbrella?’
‘What helmet and umbrella?’
He glanced sidewards at me.
‘Have you heard of Hunter and Wolfe?’ I asked him.
‘Hell yeah I have,’ he said enthusiastically. ‘I’ve heard all music through infinite space from the beginning of beginningless time.’
‘Can you do the chest thing?’
‘So now you want me to do the chest thing?’ he asked me, an involuntary grin passing over his mouth like a cloud across the sun.
‘Now I want you to do the chest thing,’ I said.
He parted his robes and from a speaker in his chest “Days and Works” began to play again.