‘Only Skin’ by Joanna Newsom

I’m cheating a little here, as it’s a song. But I include it because not only is it structured like a short story and takes as long to listen to as it does to read a short story, but also because I was present at one of its earliest public performances. There were maybe 300 of us in a field behind Baskerville Hall, and a tiny stage. She began her set by saying ‘I’m going to play mostly new material tonight’, a phrase which usually elicits gasps of horror from an audience, and then she began to play this song, solo. 

And there was a booming above you
That night, black airplanes flew over the sea
And they were lowing and shifting like
Beached whales; Shelled snails
As you strained and you squinted to see
The retreat of their hairless and blind cavalry

It lasted for nearly twenty minutes, and no one in the audience had heard it before, so we had the privilege of experiencing it together. At times, singing and playing, she seemed close to tears, at others almost laughing in sheer joy. No-one could quite believe what they were hearing. When the song finished, there were five full seconds of silence before the crowd erupted. It made me retrospectively realise that the conditions for experiencing new art are rarely collective and public; there’s usually some medium that pre-empts it, or it’s a private moment, in a reading chair or in the dark of a theatre or cinema. But it is different to undergo what you might call a joint epiphany, to catch the eyes of people around you and exchange a look of disbelief at what you’re all going through. It remains one of the great art experiences of my life.

Performed live at Green Man Festival, August 2005. Available to watch here

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