On the 30th of this month I will drag Ms Formerly Aldgate to the Brixton Academy where she will have to put up with the practical expression of my long-term devotion to the Queen of Dorset, namely, attending PJ Harvey’s gig there. I will weep and make an idiot of myself during various songs, and she will look at me with pity (Ms FA, not Polly, who will have other things on her mind).
Fandom is a curious phenomenon, but although I know why I find Ms H’s music so moving, it’s hard to put that into anything anyone else may appreciate. There are other performers I admire (the sainted Diamanda, the blessed Siouxsie, the great Kate – all women, oddly enough), but with PJ it’s different. It’s partly the Dorset connection, knowing that so much of the landscape of her imagination is the same as mine (very specifically so, in some cases). It’s partly how she has changed, at the same time (though not necessarily in the same directions) as I have changed. And it’s partly the nature of the work itself, deepening and growing over the course of twenty-five years. It seems ridiculous that I should feel such a sense of connection with someone I’ve never met, and I mentioned this to my spiritual director. ‘Why?’ parried SD with his usual breeziness. ‘You’ve never met Our Lord or St Catherine. Why is this any different?’ Well, perhaps only out of considerations of propriety, as Our Lord and St Catherine, by the nature of their work, make themselves available for such connection, and a pop singer doesn’t, not primarily, anyway, and would have good reason not to welcome it. They just do their stuff. But I suppose they do their stuff at least partly because they’ve been fans too, and know what it’s like.
How did this come about? In the run-up to the 30th I thought I would trace the line, one album at a time.
Dry was Polly Harvey’s first album, released in 1992 when PJ Harvey was a band as well as an individual: it takes her blues heritage and accelerates it with the aggressive energy of post-punk, marinating both in the unaccountable sense of sardonic rage the songwriter seemed to feel, who knows where from. But I wasn’t much into buying albums at that time, and didn’t pick up on Dry as such until much later.
Instead it was early that year that I heard the band’s second single, ‘Sheela-na-Gig’, via that great and lamented repository of the alternative, John Peel’s Radio 1 show. Not being au fait with the possibilities of multi-track recording, I assumed PJ Harvey were a girl group, because of the cross-cutting vocals. I also assumed, as many people did, that the lead singer, at least, was American. (years later she would instruct herself ‘English accent, dammit!’).
There were quite a lot of angry young women singers about in the early 90s, but ‘Sheela-na-Gig’ was something different. This was anger and erudition: I knew what sheela-na-gigs were, after misspending my teenage years stuck in my room reading about folklore and other arcana, but I hadn’t expected to hear them being referenced on Radio 1 (it would have been odd, actually, for an American to have picked up on the motif, in that far-off pre-internet age when you had to discover relevant books to find things out). It was also anger and humour, and anger and conflict: the narrator of the song both despises and yearns for male approval. This was nothing obvious, nothing straightforward; it acknowledged ambiguity and strife. It was really rather worth paying attention to. And so I filed PJ Harvey away in my mind for future reference.