Songs are powerful things. You have to be careful with them.
Very powerful songs come with powerful magic attached, whether you like it or not. Take this one song, known for years as ‘Dream Dress’ but unveiled at last, at long, long last, as a spell called ‘Vermin Mangle’.
It’s a simple song, just a sort of waltz, an easy tune to whistle. Just a bunch of notes, really. And some words. You’d say, oh, is that it? That pretty thing? You might clap along. You’ll probably say, if you keep reading to the end of this: well, I don’t know, such a lot of fuss for what, an odd sort of sea shanty or something, yeah it’s kind of strange… but all that?
Yes, all that. The sound of a life.
We didn’t know what it meant, when we first heard it. Tim Smith was nervous, playing solo – it was different to being in a band, being the single focus of all that attention – but all up for giving it a go, playing Upstairs at the Garage in 2000 for The Organ. He was so nervous we retreated down the steps for the soundcheck and left him and his sound man to it. Tantalising, unfamiliar snippets of melody. Then it went a bit quiet.
Looking back in, there’s Tim standing middle of the little stage, guitar around his neck, arms folded, head back looking up at the ceiling, that grin – you know, THAT grin – all over his face and filling the world, because he’s watching the rats or mice or, ok, let’s say they’re rats, he’s watching the audience of rats that are running back and forward above his head on some kind of skanky lattice thing suspended from the rafters of this venerable venue. He’s grinning because he loves rats, and mice, and small animals, and everything alive, and because (though we didn’t know it and he never got a chance to tell us in the busyness of the gig) that he’s just premiered his new song that is called Vermin Mangle to an audience of actual vermin.
Then, later, we hear the full song. Bootlegs drifting on the ether keep testament to what happens. Tim hands us his soul on a plate, and there is is: a life in love with life and laughter and terrified of losing it, and petrified of all the mixed up horror and beauty and pity of it. That band of his, Cardiacs, was a smokescreen, a shadow play, a wee hint of those seething eddies he had to navigate.
Imagine feeling all that, and yet having the strength and smarts to keep it together enough to make it into art! Who does that? Very few. Very very few, and lucky, lucky us to be witness to it.
Eight years later, just as this song was made ready, just before the final touches on the new Cardiacs album, just before he was to add his voice to the other tracks, the horror of the world caught up with Tim. A heart attack on a London street, swept up and saved but just too late enough to wound him in an exquisitely cruel way: stop his voice, constantly, painfully cramp his limbs, but spare his self. Stuck in bewildering, terrible limbo. Pulled, slowly, miraculously, by friends and loved ones who gradually built him a new life – gave him back the ability to communicate, fought fracturing healthcare systems, stood watch, made that huge smile come back. Slowly, miraculously, the world turned its eye and ear on Tim’s music and heard it properly, and music came back to him in the form of concerts held near his care facility in Salisbury. People were asked to help – could £40,000 be gathered to help him live better, to maybe even get him home? Within a month there £100,000 and new therapies and now there’s a famous college making him an honorary doctor of music and hope… hope..
And then, on the 21st July, 2020, he was gone. Peacefully, asleep. Cared for, loved, knowing there was a sea of love out there for him that was there for him when all the worst terrors came true. Knowing that they would be there tomorrow, that they would always be there for him.
So, this song, this ‘Vermin Mangle’ – the last song of many songs. A lifetime of songs. Be assured that every note… every squeak, every inexplicable stop and start, every tiny and great sound (and there will be sound that you won’t be able to hear, but Tim will know they’re there, and probably dogs) …every bit of sound was put where it should be, by the only person in the universe who could put it there. It seems, from the lyrics we can make out, that, we see him now, a window into what went on in there, enough of a glimpse that we can bear – that he did it at last, that he made the sound he wanted to, beyond all that rock n roll fun and nonsense. It’s all the drivers and purpose of his art, wound up into one little ditty. That we are all such little creations, and it’s terrible and wonderful.
It has been brought to our attention that the unreleased piece of music from Cardiacs that is the much talked of ‘Vermin Mangle’ wase made available as download at midnight tonight
“Cardiacs’ record label, The Alphabet Business Concern, will be offering the previously unreleased track, ‘Vermin Mangle’, as a free download via their Bandcamp page at midnight tonight. The offer is intended both as a thank you to the group’s fans, and as a way of marking Tim Smith’s passing earlier this year, on July 21. Only ever played live a handful of time during Tim’s rare forays into solo performance in 2000 (the and 2006, the studio version of the track was first shared publicly during Steve Davis’ Tim Smith tribute show on Phoenix FM on July 30. “Appropriately elegiac in atmosphere, ‘Vermin Mangle’ showcases a gentler, yet equally epic side to Smith’s songwriting. It will be the first release of ‘new’ Cardiacs material since the single, ‘Ditzy Scene’, in 2007”.
And here it is, there to download for free or at a pay what you want price, it is of course priceless, just click on the Bandcamp logo there or indeed here…
“Of stars and planets,
of darkness and light,
of all universal energies issues forth
the fragile beauty of
…a present for YOU
by way of gracious thanks
for your abiding LOVE
and LOYALTY towards,
the stellar gift that was and will forever be,
TIMOTHY CHARLES SMITH.
Send him home:
Send him near and far.
July 3rd, 1961 – July 22nd, 2020”