Is it possible to be in love with a song? Well surely it is, or we’d have no ice-cream trucks playing Greensleeves all over the Chinese world, and then some.
There are many Duff songs that will take anyone away, whisked upon Cloud 9, breaths halting. But there are few songs we don’t need to share at all for universal company and euthenasia. One such song of Duff’s is “If You Believed in Angels.”
Duff recently performed this at The Basement, when he was launching his Fragile Spaceman album. He noted, in introduction, that it came from an album of “children’s songs.” I have to look this up – but isn’t that his “Alone and Paranoid” album – where this song is entitled “Angelsong”? Are all children alone and paranoid?
Friend Robert, not so long ago, came by and heard me rolling out some David Bowie songs. “Bowie in the key of Angel” he offered – and spot on he was in sizing up my selections. I was playing Bowie’s “I’m Deranged,” his “Look Back in Anger,” his “New Angels of Promise,” “5:15,” … Just more and more angel songs. Angels annunciating and adoring shepherds. Watching over sleeping babes. Raphael taking Tobias by the hand as a dog looks dumbly on, and the Virgin is coronated as angels staff the watchtowers. Gabriel stalks the palaces, pointing out in anxiety and Latin phrases the absolute way to all who are absent. Angels are worshipping … “Adoramus …” in fragile but lingering frescoes.
Do you not believe in angels, those silent, nodding witnesses of all our moments? They trespass on your privacy, but at no cost to your vanity. They are there not in shadow, and they are there not in light. Their presence is elemental, pervasive and persistent – that is to say, somewhere about your every ideation. They do not possess; your thoughts are free; they do not inhabit, unlike devils, they do not take your hand, leading you aside as an automaton. No, you will miss angels if you look for them, let alone try to touch them. Angels, appreciated, require, respond to change (devils devour stasis). Swedenborg, Blake, Crowley, Rilke and Duff. They have not only journaled angel-life. They invite angelic presence, if our over-senses appeal. Duff doesn’t just announce “I believe in angels …” – all thoughts of angels are promising.
What does an angel look like? Swedenborg, the 18th century natural scientist (and "mystic") informs us that:
the faces of angels are the forms of their own interiors, thus of the affections that are of love and faith. (De Caelo et Ejus Mirabilibus et de Inferno, Ex Auditus et Visis)
And so how might you hear an angel? It is quite a physical happening. Again, Swedenborg:
That the speech of an angel … flows down from within even into the ear has been made clear to me by the fact that it flows also into the tongue, causing a slight vibration, but not with any such motion as when the speech tone is articulated into words by the man himself. (op. cit.)
Granted, but what do angels speak about? Well, their meaning is in their tone, and so they are mostly heard to sing. As Blake reported:
I heard an Angel singing
When the day was springing,
“Mercy, Pity, Peace
Is the world’s release.” (Poems and fragments from the Note-book, c. 1793)
Too true, then how should one listen to an angel? Aleister Crowley, in a vision, advised:
My adepts stand upright; their head above the heavens, their feet below the hells.
But since one is naturally attracted to the Angel, another to the Demon, let the first strengthen the lower link, the last attach more firmly to the higher.
Thus shall equilibrium become perfect. (Liber Tzaddi, XC, 40-42)
For those who so listen, “the kingdom shall be theirs.” Rilke was inspired samewise when writing “Only he who has eaten poppies with the dead will not lose ever again the gentlest chord” (Sonnets to Orpheus, IX). As for angels, Rilke was suspicious that they could satisfy human need, without choking the needy one:
Who, if I cried, would hear me, among angels anyway? Sure enough, one of them just takes me to his heart: I turn back from his overbearing. … Each and every angel terrifies. So I’ll just withhold myself, and choke back that dark, sobbing call. Damn, who can we turn to in this need? Angels, no. People, no.
Who, if I should cry, would hear me for a moment from among the orders of angels? And should it happen that one of them suddenly takes me to his heart, I would recoil from his greater being. … Each and every angel terrifies. And so I withhold myself, and choke back that dark, sobbing call. Oh who can we turn to in this need? Angels, no. People, no. (Duino Elegies, I, my translation)
Wer, wenn ich schriee, höre mich denn aus der Engel Ordnungen? und gestezt selbst, es nähme einer mich plötzlich ans Herz: ich verginge von seinem stärkeren Dasein. … Ein jeder Engel ist schrecklich. Und so verhalt ich mich denn und verschlucke den Lockruf dunkelen Schluchzens. Ach, wen vermögen wir denn zu brauchen? Engel nicht. Menschen nicht.
Rilke explored and expanded upon and over-rode these thoughts through 10 elegies. Jeff Duff’s “If You Believed in Angels” comes after all this emotive, essential enquiry. Angelsong is, as Swedenborg and Blake related, all in the tone – which Duff provides in ample intonations and exhalations, and so the passing strings and piano trickles.
A song cannot bring an angel to your door-step, and cannot tie an angel to your heels. Yet angelsong might have you speaking in tongues. If so, clear out from the city, no straying in the centres of the capital, speaking your crazy mind. Embed yourself back into the song that enchanted you. Lie down within its tones. And so see to it: no entirety or eternity can withstand your ennobling.