Issue #216 / December 2022
I love the song Night Raid. When you played it in Perth you said some words about it before you began but I didn’t really understand what you meant. What is Night Raid about, exactly.
ALICE, PERTH, AUSTRALIA
I feel impotent, completely ineffectual and that nothing I do is of any consequence whatsoever. Not a question. Just a fact.
FRANCIS, LEEDS, UK
Dear Alice and Francis,
Six hours ago I walked off stage at the Sydney Opera House after the last show of our Australian tour, a deeply affecting affair that has left me with the forlorn feeling of saying goodbye to an old friend. Tomorrow I fly back to London.
Alice, last night, before we played Night Raid, I mentioned to the audience that you had written in to The Red Hand Files, asking about the song. I tried to speak more clearly about its meaning, but it was an emotional night and I became overwhelmed and couldn’t quite get through the explanation. So I will try again.
Put simply, Night Raid tells the story of the conception of our twins, Earl and Arthur, twenty three years ago, on our honeymoon, in room 33 of a hotel in New Orleans. I understand that it is probably a slightly dubious premise for a song, but like a lot of songs from Ghosteen the words just arrived from some other place, with considerable force, and demanded to be taken seriously. In Night Raid, not without a certain amount of humour, the ordinary human act of carnal love takes on a quasi-mystical status as both an act of creation – the actual conception of the children – and also a poetic retelling of the incident as a cherished and innocent memory seen through the lens of the experienced and calamitous present.
I describe my new bride in religious terms –
‘You were skinny and white as a wafer’
And her happy, nonchalant, distracted anticipation –
‘Sitting on the edge of the bed clicking your shoes‘
The sexual act itself –
‘I slid my little songs out from under you’
The lovely falling line of surrender –
‘Your head in a pool of your own streaming hair’
The conception –
‘They were just a sigh released from a dying star’
And the dark foreshadowing of the painting of the pietà-ed Jesus –
‘lying in his mother’s arms’
that hung on the hotel wall.
All these images go to make the song a shimmering dream of both creation and perishing. It is, in my view, Ghosteen’s great love song, if I can say such a thing, and tonight in Sydney we played it the best we ever have. The words of the song just unfolded, the music played so minimally and tenderly it felt barely there at all. Performing that song felt like an act of love in itself and I will miss playing it. Sometimes, to not play a song becomes its own kind of heartache. Anyway, I’m very happy, Alice, that you like it.
But what is Night Raid actually trying to say? Perhaps the song attempts to present the idea that the everyday human gesture is always a heartbeat away from the miraculous – that ultimately we make things happen through our actions, way beyond our understanding or intention; that our seemingly small ordinary human acts have untold consequences; that what we do in this world means something; that we are not nothing; and that our most quotidian human actions by their nature burst the seams of our intent and spill meaningfully and radically through time and space, changing everything. Night Raid tells us that our deeds, no matter how insignificant they may feel, are replete with meaning, and of vast consequence, and that they constantly impact upon the unfolding story of the world, whether we know it or not.
In Night Raid the common act of love initiates a journey through time that holds enormous consequence, that continues to impact upon the world – even now as I write to you, at five in the morning, after a show at the Sydney Opera House. All action provokes change. Nothing is ineffectual. Nothing.
Francis, rather than feel impotent and useless, you must come to terms with the fact that as a human being you are infinitely powerful, and take responsibility for this tremendous power. Even our smallest actions have potential for great change, positively or negatively, and the way in which we all conduct ourselves within the world means something. You are anything but impotent, you are, in fact, exquisitely and frighteningly dynamic, as are we all, and with all respect you have an obligation to stand up and take responsibility for that potential. It is your most ordinary and urgent duty.