David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day 38: The Triffids (Stolen Property)

June 3, 2020

Some research indicates that people who survive heart attacks may have out-of-body experiences during the event. That doesn't appear to be true for me, as I remember nothing of the event. If I had an out-of-body experience on July 1, 2017, I must have been out to lunch. I do think I have had a couple of these experiences listening to music, which in my completely unscientific analysis seems to make more sense than during a heart attack. More than other art forms, music seems so directed to the singular sense of hearing that it would have the ability to transcend us if other senses, for lack of a better word, shut down.

For instance, my most vibrant out-of-body experience occurred in my mid-twenties while I was in graduate school in Bloomington, Indiana. I believe I had just returned from playing racquetball, so maybe I hadn't hydrated enough (a potential symptom tied to out-of-body experiences, at least according to some sources). All I know is that I laid down on my bed, put on side two of Born Sandy Devotional by The Triffids and spaced out to the music. Everything about "Stolen Property," the penultimate song on the album, is about atmosphere, which is probably exactly what I was most susceptible to on that day in Bloomington in 1986. This post is not meant to document the out-of-body-experience. It probably wasn't, but the event is a testament to how powerfully a song can overcome us in positive ways.

The Triffids, a sadly underappreciated group outside of Australia, had a charismatic songwriter/lead singer, David McComb, whose powerful voice, at times baritone, was matched by an equally powerful song-writing ability. He was well supported by a quartet of other multi-talented musicians, including a guitarist/violinist, as well as a steel guitar player with a great name, Evil Graham Lee. The Triffids utilized Lee's pedal and lap steel guitar playing in ways that were hardly similar to country-and-western. In fact, Lee has said that when he told McComb he didn't know how to play the pedal steel, McComb said that was o.k. because it was all about adding atmosphere.  If you listen to "Stolen Property," you might be forgiven for not even knowing there is a pedal steel on the recording. This is no Ernest Tubbs' "Waltz Across Texas." With Lee, it is a "drift across Australia."

On side two of Born Sandy Devotional, "Stolen Property" follows three rambunctious songs and precedes a lovely closing ballad. The track features almost 7 minutes of atmosphere, throbbing bass from the outset rumbling throughout the song, keyboards, violins, drums, and Lee's steel guitar providing a haze, as if one stands in the Outback, heat shimmer rising off the desert sands, storm far on the horizon. Musically, the song is almost entirely reverb, echo and instruments that appear to play in isolation, then collapse in on each other.

Then, within this dissonant landscape, McComb's voice intrudes, much like the "figure standing in the rain like they have no place to go" that provides the song's opening line. Lyrically, McComb will rely heavily on repetition, which will provide a sense of omen through the deep timber of his voice. Quickly, as we assess the melancholic self-reflection of the narrator, we realize that much of the repetition provides the comfort one in pain needs out of the predictable.

Generally, the structure coincides with someone deep in rumination, then exploding with some sort of of release, then retreating back to stewed contemplation. So, for instance, the first couplet gets repeated: "there's someone standing in the rain like they have no place to go/maybe that someone is you, maybe someone you don't want to know." The "want" gets changed to "aim" the second time, said with a little more force.  

Emotionally fired up, he charges into the second stanza, but when he repeats "Darling you are not moving any mountains," McComb's voice sounds like its farther in the distance, as if the figure standing in the rain is getting out of view. His emotions churn and the momentum builds up as McComb describes the lost love, with the kind of bitterness one might expect: "you never read the writing on the label/when you drank from the bottle/it said 'keep away from children.'"

Then he recoils, like a snake waiting to see what its target will do. The incantation begins anew: "Let her run away, let her run, let her run away." A second wave of emotion hits, "She can't hurt you now, she can't hurt you now," McComb cries out. The pedal steel brings the line to and from your consciousness. Violin and drums fill in the darkening space: "she don't belong here anymore/learn this the hard way."

"Finders keepers/losers weepers/This is stolen property." Third and final wave has more atmospheric gusts of wind provided by the violin and pedal steel guitar, the drums still the foreboding storm front just in the distance.

Multiple voices start to merge through the last stanza: "pick yourself up, hold yourself up to the light" at the forefront, "finders, keepers" echoing in the back. Curled in a fetal position, the narrator cries out over and over, "this is stolen property," until eventually everything gets consumed by the violin, drum, steel guitar and that unrelenting throbbing bass.  It's a pretty freaking dark place to end.

So, did I have the out-of-body experience back then?  Probably not. As is often the case, art affects us differently each time we engage with it, in part because of how our lives change. The first poem I wrote when I moved to Bloomington was "Lonely Landscape," in parts because a boy from the mountains of West Virginia was taken aback by the wide open farm country of the Midwest. There were things I still needed back in Morgantown, WV, certainly lost possessions. I couldn't quite let them go.

"Stolen Property." The Triffids. Born Sandy Devotional. Mushroom. 1986. Link here.

Day 37: Mongo Santamaria "Yeh Yeh."

Day 39: Atlanta Rhythm Section "I'm Not Gonna Let It Bother Me Tonight."

See complete list here.