Those of us who love fiction are accustomed to suspending our disbelief and enjoying a bit of illusion versus reality; if we are also music lovers, some rock and roll thrown in sweetens the deal. So, do I have a magical trip for you fiction and music lovers: the 1994 novel December by Phil Rickman has been republished along with a CD of songs by Philosopher’s Stone, the novel’s fictional band of psychic musicians, brought together one fateful night to record an album in a haunted Welsh abbey. This most recent collaboration between writer Phil Rickman and musician Allan Watson is one to have on your radar.
December, long out of print, has enjoyed a sort of cult following and more than one movie option. At long last, readers can buy a signed special edition offered by Mansion House Books, as well as a Kindle edition, with a Corvus print version and Isis audio book due soon. And even better, an Abbey Tapes: the Exorcism CD, a veritable soundtrack to December, became available as of December 8, 2011. If that date rings a bell… yes, it is John Lennon’s death date, which figures prominently in the novel’s plot. So get the tracks from iTunes or Amazon, or order the CD (info at Rickman’s website), or the special MHB signed book with CD, and settle into a comfy chair for a long eerie night of rock n’ reading. (update: Bloody hell, they’re even on Spotify now.)
Without giving away too much of the story, here’s the gist: In December of 1980, four musicians were invited to the ancient Black Abbey in Ystrad Ddu, Wales, near the holy mountain, the Skirrid, to record an album as the band Philosopher’s Stone. It turned out to be an almost cruel trick by the record producer to exploit these sensitive, psychic artists. The Abbey itself had been haunted since the 12th century when the Welsh bard Aelwyn Breadwinner (Breuddwydiwr, Welsh for “Dreamer”) died there. And each of the musicians had his own ghosts or obsessions which all seemed to come into play that fateful night, December 8… the same night John Lennon was killed. Some horrific things happen.
The musicians scatter and live with the damage done that night. The tapes for the notorious “Black Album” recorded that night were thought to be destroyed. But fourteen years later, the tapes resurface and the group is persuaded to reunite for another session. For the group and their friend/producer, Prof Levin, it becomes a reluctant attempt to heal, exorcise perhaps, the evils which still haunt them, the Abbey, the town and the Skirrid. Plenty of fascinating characters, bits of Welsh history and mystery, and scary stuff goes on. December has been called “horror” and does have just enough blood, guts, and ghosts to satisfy that genre; but the depth of characterization and empathy elevate the novel beyond horror and in fact it works as a murder mystery/crime fiction. Rickman likes to call it a ghost story. Suffice it to say, if you are looking for cozy, you’d best look elsewhere. Especially alluring are Rickman’s sardonic humor, occasional eroticism, and tidbits about the inner workings of the music industry.
The fab psychic four:
Dave Reilly is from Liverpool and has an affinity for John Lennon, though he (and most fans) derided Lennon’s last album, Double Fantasy. He talks to Lennon in his head and has visited the Dakota and Strawberry Fields in NYC; he makes a living doing a one-man show in nightclubs consisting of startlingly accurate impersonations of Lennon, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, and others. He pines away with unrequited love for Moira and tries to protect her from his dark visions.
Moira Cairns is the beautiful black-haired Scottish folk singer, the daughter of a clairvoyant gypsy mother who gave her an ancient magical hair comb. She experienced a strict upbringing by her Presbyterian grandmother, rebelling when she began to experience her powers. She appears later in another novel, The Man in the Moss, where she performs “The Comb Song”, and she turns up again in the Merrily Watkins books to perform with Lol Robinson.
Tom Storey is the most famous of the group- an electric blues guitarist from East London once compared to Clapton and Jeff Beck. The most erratic (“don’t worry Tom” they all say), Tom has a Down’s child, Vanessa, who also “sees” and plays a pivotal role.
Simon St John is a classically-trained musician who plays electric bass guitar, cello, and flute. He has become a Church of England vicar in Ystrad Ddu and by night is haunted by the ghost of the Black Abbot. Simon and Tom pop up again later in Rickman’s Merrily Watkins series.
Shaken together, the four musicians form a volatile cocktail of music, necromancy, aura reading, and divination- but they are as human and believable as you or I. If you’ve read December, you know about the fictional songs recorded at the abbey and that there were even scatterings of lyrics in the text. On Abbey Tapes, we finally get to hear the song which Dave Reilly fears caused John Lennon’s death, “On a Bad Day.” Dave is ragging on the poor dead Beatle, berating him for lowering his standards on Double Fantasy, but betrays his love for Lennon with a heartbreaking “Are we ever gonna see you again?” chorus. Also included is “Dakota Blues”, Dave’s description of his visit to the Dakota in Central Park replete with Lennon-like voice and guitar touches. Tom Storey’s “Take Me to the River” is sung as a lighthearted ditty in his Cockney accent, but then reprised in “Take Me 2” as a mournful, bluesy version with Tom’s signature electric guitar as played by Allan Watson. The short instrumental “Vanessa” is a gorgeous complexly-chorded tribute to the little heroine. Cheryl Reid’s beautiful voice is a highlight of the album, with her “Comb Song” a haunting Celtic melody; that song, while mentioned early in the text, figures more prominently in The Man in the Moss and the novel does not mention that the band played it at the Abbey. However, the comb was working its magic and lucky for us Prof was there to record it. And Moira’s beautiful gypsy tune “Sweeter” is a lovely interlude.
“Liverpool Unplugged” features Rickman’s divine reading voice (he’s a BBC radio announcer and reads Traherne’s poetry on his other albums) telling the true story of the infamous power outage of 1993. The epic “Ballad of Aelwyn Breadwinner” recounts the tragedy of a real 12th century bard who was killed in a massacre by the Normans near Abergavenny. And the ensuing “Holy Light,” featuring Simon’s healing prayer of exorcism, is glorious with its keyboards, violin, bass viol drone, and angelic Gregorian-like song. As in a rock opera, they do the voices. Dave’s Liverpool accent, Tom’s East London Cockney, plus bits of dialogue and sound effects embellish the tracks to bring you viscerally into the Abbey. This is a hauntingly beautiful album of original music grown organically in the ancient British folk tradition of story, myth, and landscape.
In case you are in terror of your hi fi melting from the novel’s notorious Black Album, be reassured: Abbey Tapes consists of the songs from the reunion 14 years later and, in a way, a final chapter is added to the book with this additional material discovered by Prof Levin and played by the musician friends of Phil Rickman. This isn’t the first musical collaboration between Glasgow’s Allan Watson and Rickman. They’ve done two albums already by Lol Robinson, the Merrily Watkins series character, heavily influenced by Nick Drake: Songs from Lucy’s Cottage and A Message from the Morning. Watson is a brilliant singer-songwriter with a long recording history in various Glasgow bands including Brig, Columbus Road, and Candy Séance. He’s also an avid reader, and in 2008 he and Rickman decided to complete Lol’s songs. Rickman includes snippets of lyrics in his novels, so those were fleshed out with Watson’s melodies, vocals, and electric and acoustic guitar. It was a labor of love, then, for the pair to bring to life December’s Philosopher’s Stone, the holy grail of fictional bands. They involved other musicians including Cheryl Reid, another Glaswegian and member of Columbus Road. Poignant violin, flute, and bass parts add magic to the songs. Musician friends on several continents got into the action by recording tracks to add to the mix (Mattie Rouse, Julie Adams, Stevie Patrick, Dave Currie, Kasander). The result: Philosopher’s Stone lives! Have other such fiction/music collaborations ever taken place? Perhaps the only occurrences of their kind, these albums are a unique fusion of fictional characters and song: the imagination incarnate.
Phil Rickman writes about the borderlands between Wales and England where the “veil” is thin, that is, there is a blurring between the real and imagined, the present and past, the modern and the traditional, the living and the dead. While best known for his Merrily Watkins crime-fiction-with-a-paranormal-twist series, he first wrote a number of ghost stories such as Candlenight and Curfew, all of which are now being republished in paperback and Kindle editions by Corvus Press and worth ordering from Amazon UK if necessary. In addition, he has delved into a meeting of crime and historical fiction with his The Bones of Avalon featuring Dr. John Dee, physician and astrologist to Queen Elizabeth I, and their attendant Glastonbury/Arthurian legends (a sequel is in the works). He has authored other works under the pen names of Will Kingdom and Thom Madley. -Julie Adams
(update: just don’t read the 1996 Berkley edition published in the US- for some reason they edited out some important details. Those Berkley butchers.)