A very busy weekend, great chances to catch up with friends which were grabbed with both hands – the chances, not the friends. The friends were only touched lightly. Mostly.

On Sunday we drove to Leicester to catch the last day of their weekend festival. Purpose of mission – Bon Iver live at 07:30pm. It was his last appearance in the UK this year and maybe for much longer as he is presumably off to record something to follow up “For Emma, Forever Ago”. An album so beautiful you’d wish you were called Emma.

For anyone not keeping up, Bon Iver is a band formed around singer songwriter Justin Vernon. The title is a corruption of ‘Bon Hiver’ or good winter, which is in turn a reference to the fact that he recorded his album while spending three wintry months in a remote cabin in Wisconsin. Justin had spent a year or so living in Raleigh, NC and had broken up with his girlfriend and a former band. For the record, this girlfriend wasn’t called Emma. “Emma” was an earlier love who also wasn’t called Emma either. To add to his misery, he contracted a contagious herpes virus called Mononucleosis that initially attacks the lymph nodes in the neck and throat but later can affect the liver and cause jaundice. It also leaves a lingering melancholic depression. To recove from all this, he went back to Wisconsin and the remote cabin in the winter woods.

The austerity of backwoods living, especially during winter, and the emergence of art from sensual deprivation makes links for me (and others before me, not original here) to the American author/philosopher Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862),  and in particular to “Walden”, a book about simple living in natural surroundings.

Thoreau’s cabin belonged to his mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who is the origin of that quote about most people living their lives in quiet desperation. They were both followers of a trandencentalist view in which “desperation” was the consequence of living our lives in the hurly-burly of modern existence. Like in a cartoon I saw where behind someone running on a gym treadmill lay an open, waiting grave. The caption took the Blur song title – modern life is rubbish. Thoreau stressed the importance of self-reliance, solitude, contemplation, and being close to nature as a way of transcending the “desperate” existence of life.

Not everyone thought this was such a great idea. Big, burly Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson took time off from writing about ‘Aaar Jim Lad’ and Kidnapping to accuse Thoreau of being basically, well – a woman.

“Thoreau’s content and ecstasy in living was, we may say, like a plant that he had watered and tended with womanish solicitude; for there is apt to be something unmanly, something almost dastardly, in a life that does not move with dash and freedom, and that fears the bracing contact of the world.”

If Justin Vernon only realised, he’d sing with a baritone and not a falsetto 🙂

Some of the parallels may be profound, but some are funny. Thoreau’s cabin was a couple of miles from his home and quite close to his mother’s house. She brought him baskets of cookies and other treats. Justin’s log cabin was his father’s property.  No breaking in with an axe to some stranger’s cabin and living there illegally.

Back to the live show at the festival. It was very faithful to the album (a good thing) and he was totally relaxed but engaging. The song that seemed to be the zenith of the show was The Wolves (Act I and II) and he did the same thing he did at Glastonbury – he got the audience to sing-along the five words “what might have been lost” at an ever-rising volume. Why those five words? What is it that was nearly lost? With staggering pomposity, I put it to you that the thing we stand to lose is our slender grip on love of one another – the “skinny love” – unless we stand outside the “desperation” in some sort of solitude and thereby transcend the everyday madness.

Bon Iver-The Wolves (Act I and II) – Live at Glastonbury 2009

So, for Bon Iver, not so long ago. And for friends and family, and the skinny love we give.