By The Landlord
“There are mysteries which men can only guess at, which age by age they may solve only in part.” – Bram Stoker
“Oh the nerves, the nerves; the mysteries of this machine called man! Oh the little that unhinges it, poor creatures that we are!” – Charles Dickens, The Chimes
“Scientific method has the power to account for and interlink all phenomena in the universe, including its origin, using the laws of nature. But that still leaves the laws unexplained.” – Paul Davies (British physicist)
So what happened at Roswell? Or the 1995 autopsy video? Or at the Valentich Incident? Did Hitler build a Nazi UFO that was copied in 1947 by the Americans? Who is the Green Man or indeed the Moth Man? Where is Atlantis? And where are the Sailing Stones and how fast do they move? What is the Beast of Bodmin Moor, or the Flying Dutchman? And can you hear the Taos Hum? Perhaps beyond Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster, alien sightings to abduction, divine miracles to ghostly ectoplasm, mass hallucination to levitation, the really true mystery and unexplained phenomena, is what goes on in the human brain. And considering that, the very miracle that we have so far survived. But this week it’s time to delve into the strange and mysterious world of the unexplained, the forest of Fortean Times, things that to some are fantasy, but to others are fact. The oscillation between these two states is where the magic happens, and in particular we want to explore where such subject matter comes up in the title, or lyrics of songs. It won't hurt a bit:
People never tire of the unknown, and that’s because the biggest unexplained phenomena are contained within their own minds. As the Swedish writer Maj Sjowall puts it: “People read more mysteries than they do political pamphlets.” And now another writer, Siri Hustvedt adds: “The brain is an immensely complex organ, and many mysteries remain. Exactly how brain and mind or soma and psyche are related is one of them.” And now the great Polish director, Krzysztof Kieslowski, the creator of The Decalogue, focusing on love, killing and eight other key areas of existence, has popped into the bar to tell us that “there are mysteries, secret zones in each individual.” So which mystery comes first? As the Fortean Times shows, there are so many unexplained issues:
Some regard this as pulp fiction fodder, but in a clever reverse, in the Men In Black, such “hot sheet” publications, disguised as nonsense, are really“the finest investigative reporting on the planet”:
But are there really Men In Black and other such alien guardians? Who knows, but it makes for good entertainment. One thing is for sure, there are always government organisations attempting to create cover-ups to the point of absurdity, and that is as much a mysterious phenomenon as that which they are supposedly covering up. The CIA-sponsored MKULtra programme as set up during the Cold War to research and develop materials that could be used to control human behaviour – basically, how to do mind-control. That tendency is strange phenomena in itself. And then of course there were the men who try to stare at goats, with a feature film based on Jon Ronson’s book. :
But while there are clearly many fakes, there’s still that little bit of doubt that keeps the candle of hope alight. First then, let’s do monsters. Here’s the Yeti, Bigfoot or Sasquatch, or those aping it, on camera:
Medieval Europe has its own equivalents from the Green Man to the Wild Man or Woodwose. Here he is. Looks like a fun guy:
Careful where you tread in the woods. You might hurt yourself. On that score, is the woodwose really someone from one of my new favourite bands - Snapped Ankles?
But he gets everywhere, Mr Sasquatch, hairy or leafy, even leaving his skull behind on Mars. That’s space, death, aliens and Bigfoot in one story. Who would have thought it? It’ll never sell:
Perhaps something that fuels so much unexplained phenomena is pareidolia, our tendency to see faces in things, from tree trunks to the face of Jesus in bit of mildly burned bread. Perhaps it’s due to a visit from the Holy Toast. Sorry.
Ghosts, holy or otherwise, are big part of unexplained phenomena, that is, if they’re not some sort of electro-magnetic field messing with our perception, or some kind of dodgy photographic process just hanging around at dinnertime.
One of my favourite ghost songs is more metaphorical, originally a hit by R Dean Taylor, with another great version by the Fall, in which Mark E Smith is “sitting in my easy chair” and feels Brix’s “fingers running through my hair”. Spooky.
But there are also truly chilling, and moving ghost-related songs. Phantom 309 is a story about a ghost truck that gives lifts to strangers. It was written by Tommy Faile and released as a single by Red Sovine in 1967.
But other great versions include one by Tom Waits, perfectly paced and rather moving.
Death is a very ripe subject for unexplained phenomena. An old example, is that of the ‘dancing plague”. In July 1518 Frau Troffea took to the streets of Strasbourg and started to dance maniacally. A week later, she had been joined by 100 people and within a month there were four times as many who began to collapse from exhaustion – a large number died. Weirdly, there had been at least 10 comparable incidents documented since the 14th century. Were there ecstasy dealers back then too?
And then, alongside all the mystery murders, is the case of the so-called Vampire Child, Mercy Brown, young girl who died from tuberculosis in New England, 1892. She was exhumed along with her mother and sister who has also died from the disease in 1892 when her father was told a sinister spirit may be at work on his family. When Mary’s body was brought to light it did not show any signs of decomposition, despite being buried for two months. Her skin was well preserved, her hair and nails had grown and she even had liquid blood; even more weirdly her body was said to have moved positions in the grave. While science has tried to explain it, no theories have succeeded completely – perhaps Mercy was, as suggested at the time, a vampire child, sucking the life out of her family. I’ve heard of children draining everything from the bank of mum and dad, but that’s getting ridiculous.
But perhaps now let’s welcome some scientists and other wise folk into the bar to get some perspective on the unexplained. Richard P Feynman says: “We get the exciting result that the total energy of the universe is zero. Why this should be so is one of the great mysteries - and therefore one of the important questions of physics. After all, what would be the use of studying physics if the mysteries were not the most important things to investigate?”
Meanwhile here’s Martin Rees, who remarks that we have also achieved so much in our understanding. “It is astonishing that human brains, which evolved to cope with the everyday world, have been able to grasp the counterintuitive mysteries of the cosmos and the quantum.” Still, quantum theory though, particles and waves, or an object being in the two different places at once, ,or dark matter? It’s still unexplained in so many ways.
Perhaps we need the unexplained. It’s part of being afraid, and therefore alive. As the great writer and art critic John Berger puts it: “The Cro-Magnons lived with fear and amazement in a culture of Arrival, facing many mysteries. Their culture lasted for some 20,000 years.” Angela Carter also has a historical perspective on our need for mystery and fantasy: “Strangers used to gather together at the cinema and sit together in the dark, like Ancient Greeks participating in the mysteries, dreaming the same dream in unison.”
So some things do seem to remain inexplicable, such as the Tunguska Explosion. In 1908, a fireball descended from high in the sky and destroyed an area in the wilderness of Tunguska, Siberia. The explosion is said to have been equal to around 2,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs. Could this have been something to do with ball lightning, an atmospheric phenomenon associated with thunderstorms, which consists of spherical-shaped, floating orbs of electricity? Could that explain UFO sightings and other strange sightings in the sky? Maybe, but nothing quite like this:
Strange noises, as mentioned in the video, could have many sources, whether they are from radioactivity, alien unidentified radio broadcasts, or a massive hangover from seeing that loud band last night. Still, you were really great, Snapped Ankles.
But perhaps the greatest unexplained phenomenon in all music is that of the spontaneously combusting drummer. To that of course, we must turn to the ver timeless This is Spinal Tap. Any excuse:
And so then, carefully place your song-based unexplained material, using special gloves, in the comments box below. This week’s musical scientist, stringing everything together and making sense of it all in playlists, I’m very happy to say, is the superb SidecarShiv. Deadline? This Monday 11pm UK time, in time for publication next Wednesday. You never know what might happen next …
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