Seven years to this day Topher Thompson left his home country of England in favour of the seclusion and acoustics of Prague’s back alleyways and narrow side streets and here I was, a feature writer for The Greystone Independent, retracing his footsteps, hoping the world’s most famous unheard melody would uncover Topher’s hideaway and lure me hopelessly towards its beguiling and yet unknowable refrain.
He is, they say, a different man now to the person we saw growing up amidst the reckless, halcyon days of Western music. He was part of an era when entropy was embraced as both human intuition and scientific creed, when musicians could express sentiments, philosophy and wisdom which went far beyond the whims and the whys of current reason and culminated in simplistic three chord progressions and the staged, vacant look of a ghost.
I had never before been to Prague and yet here I was passing through its cobbled streets. It is a place imbued in my mind, falsely perhaps, with great suffering, a place where ethereal gravestones mark the sad lives of those who struggled against the strange historical forces of our ages, and yet Prague, a city of unending imagination, is also the place where a duke traversed shoeless through frost, dirt and snow to give alms to the wretched. Here I was standing, street map in hand, camera at the ready, in the vast, expansive home to this memory, Wenceslas Square, stately, imposing and yet so eerily and extraordinarily serene.
The first time I met Topher was in a quaint, provincial homestead in Limousin. Playing his guitar in front of friends, family and a few invited journalists, he appeared like the eternal younger brother, his stare vacant and bored but his manner one of pleasure, ease and contentment. There was no disdain towards the demands of the audience, each of them listening, spellbound and expectant, anticipating magic with every tune that he played. And there was no resentment, either, towards his father, a man who long ago through his spells and his charms and his melodies enchanted every one of us and who, ingrained in our memories, in our whims and our thoughts, would appear forever in the phrases of Topher’s singing.
There was a story I remember reading years ago in a French newspaper. These were the journalist’s words, translated of course:
Topher is a young and beautiful child. Fourteen years old and already appearing onstage with his father, accompanying him competently on the guitar, providing backing vocals and a child’s happy rhythm. Topher doesn’t look at me when I interview him. Instead he confers intimacy through his smile. When I ask him about his father he talks about his music instead. And then, towards the end of the interview, I receive a glimpse of the real Topher. He decides - rather unnaturally I thought - to confide in me a recent memory of his father. Coming off stage, the two of them congratulating each other for a concert greatly received, he watches his father embrace a young but attractive woman. They start to kiss and his father places a hand on the lady’s hips. They continue kissing. Only the night before, Topher had helped his father write a poem for his mother. ‘Darling, I’ll be home soon’ they had called it, his father’s uxorious sentiment in the words of the poem and its rhythms had been so gentle, so vulnerable and sweet that Topher had wanted to cry. And yet here was his father being so vaingloriously unfaithful. Was it a sanctimonious anomaly? Or was it an action he was predestined to repeat?
Sitting on that sofa in France, I listened to Topher play a familiar drone, an open string pedal which rolled like the waves of the ocean, harplike in its completeness, whilst his voice wilted and whistled upon the sea. There were two girls, distant cousins I learnt later, who impishly poked and pricked their famous cousin, tickling his bare feet with a feather, taking it in turns to break his concentration yet, despite their insistence, neither could find a way to penetrate Topher’s impassive, almost hypnotic retreat.
I have no idea where he will be playing today as a good friend of mine says he moves constantly from sidestreet to alleyway, never sure where he’ll end up or where his message will be blown. My friend, who has seen Topher a number of time since his exile, tried, before I left, to describe, in the most abstract terms he could, the sweet melody Topher is now famous for playing, a sweet melody which he plays for every hour of every day and which people, some of them travelling for days across land, some of them travelling across oceans and some across streets, listen for hours at a time, transfixed by the naive strains of its confession.
Upon my friend’s advice, I head to a cafe, one chosen at random, and sit down and order a coffee. I drink the thick, bitter drink and look out upon the puzzled streets of Prague, one of Europe’s most beautiful cities but also the city of Kafka and Golem, dark puppet shows and fanciful myths. Prague was a puzzle and its streets an Esher-like maze. There was something almost unreal about the people, puppet-like in their movements, gracing through their separate journeys with God’s strings guiding their silicate feet. This was a place where you could disappear. A place where the stone and the walls and the buildings welcomed you, then wrapped you up and carried you away in a casket of stone.
‘I am looking for something,’ I said to the waiter when he came back to remove my empty cup. It was a different waiter to the one who had provided the original coffee although to glance at them quickly you would be forgiven for thinking them the same.
‘It is not on the menu, Sir?’ the waiter says, his English perfect in all but the deployment of every stress.
‘It is less a food,’ I say. ‘And more of a person.’
‘A person?’ the waiter says, his accent falling on the final syllable.
‘That’s right. I am looking for the guitarist. The Englishman who plays his music here, that same melody every day on an acoustic guitar. He moves from alleyway to alleyway, never in the same place, always changing. I think you know who I mean.’
‘The English rabbi?’ he says.
‘A rabbi?’ I repeat. ‘He is not a rabbi, he’s a guitarist.’
‘No, no. You mean the musical rabbi. Like the man who created Golem. You know Golem?’ he says, extending his arms and his spine in a motion to confer enormity. ‘The monster. The guardian who long ago protected the Jewish people. Well, that’s what we call him. We call him the English rabbi,’ he says, his accent varying with the progression of every sentence. ‘We call him the English rabbi and his melody the musical Golem. The melody protects us from the evils of our lives and from modernity and from the pressures of existence. It is a simple melody. But it is enough to keep us safe.’
‘And you have heard it?’ I say. ‘You have heard this simple melody?’
‘Me? No. I have walked these streets all my life. Your Englishman has been here for one year, maybe more. And yet I have never seen him. Never heard him. But my brother, he has passed him one time in the street and he has heard the tune and he came into this restaurant one night and he hummed it to me. It was a beautiful tune.’
A part of me wondered whether a melody could be so special, so distinct and so empowered, that it could transcend the limits of its medium and sound as beautiful half-remembered by a waiter’s brother as it would when played on the guitar of its creator, sung through his tones and with his unconditional love. I doubt it somehow. Music is as much a perception of circumstance and production, melody just a small part of its overall charm, and yet who’s to say Topher hasn’t pushed through music’s arbitrary limitations?
‘Do you know where he might be today?’ I say. ‘Or is there someone who can help me? Someone who may know?’
‘I have never seen him,’ he says. ‘I can’t help you.’
‘But maybe one of your colleagues might know?’
‘My colleagues, no. You need to use these,’ he says, pointing to his ears.
I took my leave and thanked him for his service.
Perhaps the most striking detail, weaved beautifully into the legend of Golem, is the fragility of the large monster’s existence. He carries upon his head four letters which, when translated roughly from the Yiddish, confer a meaning of truth and righteousness and yet, when a citizen, fearful of the monster’s power, is able to assail the monster’s body and erase the first letter, the word’s transformation kills him. Golem’s death is bathetic but also logical, for the remaining three letters spell death. I think of Topher’s melody, the musical Golem, and wonder if it too leads a fragile existence, whether the truth it emanates across the alleyways and pathways of Prague loses a part of itself, a letter, as soon as you take it outside, heralding death rather than its more righteous refrain.
There are precious few who can claim to have seen the young Topher play, myself being one of them: we heard his voice and heard the arpeggios, and yet wondered if the boy was really there, so entranced would he seem upon the stage, so ineffable and indistinct. He approached life with the same improvised confusion with which he tackled each melody, moving nervously from one note to the other, losing himself for a moment only to find himself in new and unimaginable terrain.
Music accompanied him. But it also told him where to go. Music led him to places in the same way our feet move us forward and our brains tell us why. He had free will but it was neither biological nor philosophical. It was a musical determination.
And so it was a sad day when music was no longer the province of beautiful wastrels like Topher, when music became the fixed product of boxes ticked and courses completed. It was in Europe where the evolution first happened but America followed quickly, Australia, Asia and Canada not far behind. No longer were there record companies and deals, teens sitting in the haze of their cavernous bedrooms dreaming of the day they would colonise the stage, the day their voices would be amplified, radiant and eternal. Music became nationalised, a centralised bureaucracy, applicable only to those who were willing to part with their freedom and become, in the simplistic, businesslike terms of our governments, registered for performance. For too long, to paraphrase the words of one politician, our children had been floating on clouds high above our cities, looking down upon our achievements, the factories in which alchemy prevailed and the offices in which ideas shone like gold, and they had hummed a tune which in their mind transcended success, progress and human happiness, but, entwined with the tunes of other tunesmiths, a cacophony had been formed and one day, who knows when, the cacophony was going to swell, shaking the foundations of our cities, leaving nothing behind but the dust of their feckless and wayward ambition.
I know someone who applied to be registered. They committed to three years of musical study, twelve hour days given exclusively to the decoding of modern music, examinations of three to four hours at a time in which they would sit, alone in a room, determining the exact flatness or sharpness of a pitch, a low and constant drone of note after note after note equivalent to torture had it not been voluntarily agreed. They would perform relentlessly, asked to play whatever style at a moment’s notice, their efforts assessed by silhouettes in suits, criticised with a curt and tumescent fury. Had my friend completed the three years, she would have, along with the special few who graduated alongside her, had the sole right to release music in her country. But alas, she, like many others, failed before her reward could be won.
Topher, listening gravely to the unseasonable melody of the politicians –more workers, less dreamers, more workers, less dreamers – had never even offered himself to the chains of registration. There he was, sitting at the crossroads, the devil on one side, the bureaucrat on the other, and somehow, through a trick of our minds or through a trick of his imagination, he disappeared from our view until one day, across the channel, across the flatlands of Belgium and the forests of western Germany, he reappeared, humming a melody, a melody which carried for miles upon a strange and incalculable breeze.
And here I am, listening for every whisper and every whistle, traversing the unending streets of Prague’s centre, past cemeteries and churches, statues, street artists, indigents and ghostly, dispassionate buskers, wondering if I am any closer to Topher’s expressionist refrain. I walk across Charles Bridge, into Mala Strana, past locks chained to rails, restaurants and tourist chatter. I walk around mazes incongruously created, past Kafka’s childhood home, and past the lure of shopkeepers and restaurateurs, puppet shows and itinerant hounds. Day becomes night very quickly and dusk paints a bronze and yellow glaze. I imagine a puppet show underground, the basement dark and the audience invisible but for the white, pearly gleam of their eyes, until one by one, their gaunt, manic faces become illuminated, white and bold, each of them appearing like Topher, his face, his melody, his unattainable, hypothetical presence.
What it is which attracts me to the lady standing outside the Church of St. Peter, I don’t know but it is enough to confer on me the impression of some importance. She wears a stunted top hat, an ankle length coat and a black and white chain around her candle-like neck. I move towards her, listening, wondering what it is she says to the people going past, the one word repeated again and again, a different language, coded maybe, a coarse supplication, an entreaty to share.
‘You are looking for someone?’ she says as I approach.
‘I am looking for the rabbi,’ I say.
‘The rabbi?’ she says. ‘Then you wish to hear the melody?’
‘The melody of Golem?’
Once again I nod in her direction.
‘And what makes you come towards me?’
I shrug my shoulders, smiling as she beckons me to follow. We pass through the streets hurrying, the lady in front, sleeking gracefully through slips in the pedestrian traffic, and me hanging two or three paces behind, cautious and mistrustful. My eyes follow the line of her body and I am led by the dark, serpentine spike of her ponytail, its thick, matted spear appearing out of the base of her hat and its tongue nestled beneath the line of her lower body. Like others who, carried by a purpose absolute and impending, walk quickly in a singular direction, I bear the sensation of displacement, as if the world is moving against my ensuing motion, no one behind me, following, no one in tow, everyone herding towards the opposite direction.
Past cafes I have already noted, statues with whom glances have been previously shared, everything appears familiar and yet so different from my original impression. The streets appear narrower during these dark twilight hours. The buildings somehow larger. It is only when we turn the final corner that nothing, not the sky nor the air nor the motion, becomes recognisable anymore. Even the light is different: grey and purple-tinted, no longer a golden and hazy, muddy brown.
They are watching him, his disciples, standing observant in an impassive row of slow-forming, impressionist figures. They wear dark jackets mostly, emanating a mist, a low-lying cloud of discernment and appreciation. I move towards them, nestling between two of the smaller spectators, and finally, against the plain granite backdrop of a wall, I finally see him, this naïve and eternal child, strumming his acoustic guitar and staring searchingly at his feet and the emptiness which surrounds them.
It occurs to me that, so quiet is his playing, only now do I hear his music, the shimmer and trill of his voice, the rail-line pulse of his acoustic guitar, a voice which soars like a cello, no words identifiable, no sounds to which our servile ears can relate, a voice of violins rising and falling, grey-black and blue, white even, a purple shading, it is as if one is peering through one’s eyelids, seeing colour in the darkness of one’s skin. The melody appears to repeat itself in undisclosed stages, intruding nervously, whispering a cold and indeterminate plea. I am reminded of my childhood, when, awake on my bed, supine and undisturbed, my voice becomes a low and monotonous drone, held for as long as I can hold it, the same undisclosed note, the same undisclosed purpose, and I wonder if this melody, the one I hear now, is but a similar definition, a beautiful but inescapable drone, protected by the deceitfulness of its beauty, the conspiracy of melody, the illusion of a fine and virtuous tune.
What does Topher imagine? I don’t know. His eyes are dark intrusions in his face. His lips are parted. I wonder if I will remember this moment in all its strange but immediate beauty or whether it will develop with the onset of time, becoming, like all other past and powerful memories, a construction of hindsight, a figment of fleeting impressions, emotions and deviations from the truth. The melody itself offers nothing to me now. Blank and evanescent. It is a melody which speaks only through its own cyclical and uncertain disappearance. Opening my eyes, I imagine myself in someone else’s mind, waking up to the thoughts of another person, but this is a deception quickly lost when, like skin pricked during a deep and impermeable dream, I observe the faces of the listeners around me. Faces I have seen today already. Faces noted in my mind’s original incarnation. And there, not two paces away, I could almost swear it: the waiter, his eyes closed but his lips a gentle smile.