The Incredible String Band is an anomaly. They’re one of those groups that needs no introduction, yet are somehow unknown. They’re omnipresent in the collective consciousness of a generation of folksters, but notably absent from the tongues of tastemakers. They are many things to many people: an avant-garde take on traditionally narrative British Isles folk, an impenetrably pretentious spring-board for frontman Robin Williamson, or a patchoulli-drenched exercise in 60’s experimentation. In many respects, they occupy the same musical pantheon as The Holy Modal Rounders – both in chronological and philosophical terms – yet exist wholly apart and aside from that groundbreaking band’s off-kilter ouevre. Where ISB was a reaction to British folk, the Rounders were a reaction to the Americana of Woody Guthrie, Roscoe Holcomb, and Dock Boggs. But I digress.
This weekend I found myself in a rare spot: cleaning my place. This included, but was not limited to, wiping my coffee table clear of aborted rolling papers, collecting beer cans to recycle, and discovering the origin of odors that seem to emerge from nowhere but turn out to be from an uncooked hamburger patty under the couch. I decided to put on The Incredible String Band’s self-titled debut album while I embarked on this Sisyphean task, and was instantly reminded why the band is both immediately captivating but also decidedly divisive.
With deft but often erratic acoustic shredding, Robin Williamson’s guitar sings with a stream-of-consciousness lyricism that hasn’t really been touched since. I doubt it ever will. His words, rife with poetic fervor but always forthright and approachable, are dripping with the angst and confusion that most every young man experiences as he takes his first flight into a – gasp – realization of mortality. And, as I stood there with sponge in hand and tax return forms in my filing cabinet (the floor), I had my own brush with chilling self-awareness. I summoned the words of two men, the first being Nick Drake:
“When I was younger, younger than before I never saw the truth hanging from the door And now I’m older see it face to face And now I’m older gotta get up clean the place.” (“Place to Be”)
The second set of words by ISB’s Williamson were more immediately poignant…as they were playing at the time:
“I met a man whose name was Time, And he said, ‘I must be goin’; But just how long ago that was, I have no way of knowing. Sometimes I want to murder time – Sometimes when my heart’s aching – But mostly I just stroll along, The path that he is taking.” (“October Song”)
I stopped what I was doing for a moment and let the words sink in. Although “time” is certainly an entirely man-made concept, change is not. This is something that I’ve always known – consciously or unconsciously – in the very essence of my being. But sometimes it takes a song – say, by the Incredible String Band – to put those emotions, that knowledge, into a tangible form. The Incredible String Band are many things to many people and, on this day, they were a welcome respite from the rigors of a menial task and the profound notions of age and mortality inherent in such. Then I took out the trash.