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Which comes first, the music or the words?


Songwriters are often asked this in interviews. My question would be but what if they’re the same thing?

Why don’t we start with a spot of time travel? It’s 1995, two years before New Labour wins a landslide election. Britpop is all over the radio, TV and print media. The art world is being shaken up by pickled sharks, unmade beds, and a Sarah Lucas piece called Two Fried Eggs And A Kebab. And a singer from Sheffield is copyrighting what will come to be known as geek chic.

She came from Greece. She had a thirst for knowledge.

A song from another era.

She studied sculpture at Saint Martin’s College.

Democracy, or demos, to get all Greek about it, means common people.

But I had to start it somewhere, so it started there.

This isn’t a supermarket, the point of departure in Jarvis Cocker’s lyric, it’s a non-descript room. We’re jumping forward now to 2007. The contrast of children’s art on the walls and drab furniture suggests either a council office, or the least loved corner of a nursery. One of the paintings depicts a family home in front of which sits a car with a red and blue light. Dad is being marched toward that car.

Welcome to the main meeting room in Edinburgh’s children’s hearings office. Three of us sit one side of the table, three the other. The star of the show is seated between two prison guards. She’s the mother of a little boy who’s currently being looked after elsewhere. When she came in she was handcuffed. She still is. She says five words-

I don’t want to leave.

These words could be spoken from the bottom of a well. And you suspect that’s where her psyche dwells rather than in this formal-informal space with a boardroom feel and a plastic fire engine in one corner.

I don’t want to leave.

Where doesn’t she want to leave? This building, this city, this country? The panel member to my right leans over and whispers-

She said she doesn’t want to live. Ah…

I’ve not tuned in. I’ve not anticipated this. I’ve not scribbled anything on the piece of paper in front of me that helps. The picture fades. We jump forward again in time.

It’s the day after tomorrow. An office near Haymarket, the late afternoon shift. A phone rings. Except it doesn’t ring. A light on the otherwise standard landline phone pulses with a red flash to show it’s ringing. On the third ring – or flash – I pick up. I don’t say hello. I don’t say my name. I don’t make a fuss. I say five words.

Words matter, right? Words are what connect us. Words are a key component of what makes us human. The novelist and art critic John Berger said—

What I would mean by “truth” is a question of the precision of the words, of their sequences, how the spaces between them encourage the reader to come as close as possible to the experience described. Words are so often used in the opposite sense, as a screen of diversion. It’s the struggle towards truthfulness which is the same whether one is writing a poem, a novel, or an argument.

Words count, then. But what about tone? This isn’t the time for buttoned-up formality, or gossiping by the water cooler, or flashing a Disney smile with Colgate sincerity. I tried out all these during my training. Make it less like that and more like, well, make it more like a late-night DJ, I was told.

A late-night DJ it is. I say five words. Samaritans. Can I help you? The conversation that follows could be about loneliness, grief, addiction, anxiety, abuse, trauma, suicide and more. The more that comes from the lived experience. To use that anaemic phrase. The more that speaks of the human condition at its most fragile. The more that emerges like a whisper from the bottom of a well.

People will share with Samaritans their deepest feelings and their darkest thoughts. The burden they carry. The broken pieces of their hearts. The troubles that would make a country singer blush. But around the edges of that conversation you might find something lighter. A clue to the caller’s character. It could be their humour, their resilience, their passion, their past, dare I say their future, if they’re able to see a future.

And I’m not betraying any secrets to say I’ve had callers talk about honour among Hell’s Angels, the musical preferences of white witches, David Bowie’s film career, the words for cat and dog in Hindi, the stormy majesty of JMW Turner, showtunes from South Pacific, and the iconography of Ange Postecoglou’s jumper.

After a Samaritans shift I can experience the world more vividly, more pungently, more noisily. Not unlike in the Wizard Of Oz when the film turns from black‘n’white to technicolour.

My question for Judy Garland, for Oscar Hammerstein, for Bowie, for that blushing country singer, for Jarvis, would be which comes first, the music or the words? ■

Rodger Evans



After a Samaritans shift I can experience the world more vividly, more pungently, more noisily


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