Tweet Follow @PlanetSlade

Nasra Ismail: continued

Page: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
Murder Ballads
Secret London

Several people on the message boards suggested existing tunes that seemed to fit the words I'd written, such as The Wild Rover, A North Country Maid or The Patriot Game.
I know now that this is because those songs follow the same ballad scansion I'd copied from Slip Jigs, but at the time it just seemed a rather baffling coincidence. When I later came to research some old British gallows ballads, I discovered their Victorian composers had relied on exactly the same technique. Like me, they'd published their words with no accompanying music, but structured those words to let readers attach any one of a dozen popular ballad tunes they already knew.
When Steve Tilston himself replied to my note, he suggested I graft an existing tune to my lyrics too. "I remember that, with Slip Jigs, I wanted a tune that sounded familiar, as if the listener had heard it before, but when pressed couldn't actually come up with the original template," he said. "I suppose therein lies the art. Why don't you use Slip Jigs as the template and bend it out of recognition?"
The short answer to that question, of course, was that I lacked any trace of the musical skills required for such a task. I was grateful to Steve for taking my efforts in such good part, though, and smiled when I saw he'd signed off his e-mail with the words "See you in court".

The best advice I got on the message boards came from the songwriter and teacher Tom Bliss. "Sometimes it helps to write two versions of a song," he wrote. "One for yourself which allows you to get the feelings out, and another - perhaps written sometime later - for public consumption. With a tragedy as terrible and as recent as this, it might be tactful to play down the details and use more obscure, but nonetheless powerful words, to suggest the tale.

My next version, I decided, should be narrated by Nasra's head as it rose from the canal floor

"Songs work very differently to, say, a newspaper article. The tune will do much of the work for you, so your words can step back a pace. [...] If I was to tackle this task myself, I would use Nasra's name and make sure I'd communicated what had actually happened. But I would avoid overloading the story with more detail than was strictly necessary to get the emotional response I needed." (10, 13)
I could see that Tom's advice made a lot of sense, so I sat down at the keyboard again and tried to put it into practice. This time, I took Oscar Wilde's The Ballad of Reading Gaol as my model. In its new version, I decided, the song should be narrated by Nasra's severed head as it rose from the bottom of the canal, and the result looked like this:

The Headlines (Nasra's Song)

The papers will not tell my tale,
I'll be my own reporter,
And tell of how I came to this,
Somalia's proud daughter,
To start my life so far away,
And end 'neath London water.

I came here as a refugee,
But money soon was tight,
I'd sell myself along the streets,
Of King's Cross every night,
To buy the drugs I needed then,
To find a little light.

It's cold down here: so cold and dark,
And I am all alone,
Your city's evil put me here,
Weighed down with blood and bone,
I miss the life I left behind,
My children not yet grown.

I met him on a night in March,
Out walking in the rain,
He offered twenty for a fuck,
And promised me cocaine,
Then led me northward from the streets,
I'd never see again

We did it once then smoked his rock,
"Get out" was all he said,
But when I tried to leave he smashed,
A crow-bar on my head,
He raped me then and stabbed me too,
By morning I was dead.


I watched from somewhere even then,
Though I was not alive,
And saw him cut my body up,
In pieces one to five,
My head and hands went in this bag,
To take a midnight dive.

I smiled while falling from the bridge,
To splash so far below,
I had a secret for the police,
My killer did not know,
He'd left a tag inside the bag,
They'd soon know where to go.


I hear the frogmen coming near,
The rest of me's been found,
The flat's address against my cheek,
Will close this sorry round,
My killer hears the police approach,
He knows he's prison-bound.

I glimpse the future as I rise,
Though waters cold and dirty,
I'll be at rest but he'll receive,
Hard years - not less than thirty,
A old man then he'll die in jail,
He can no longer hurt me.

It's cold in there: so cold and dark,
And he'll be all alone,
His own black evil put him there,
Weighed down by brick and stone,
Yet still I miss the life I had,
And children not yet grown.

I posted these lyrics on a couple of message boards too, and most people seemed to agree they were a big improvement. I was starting to feel that way myself, and again began dropping hints that someone should set them to music and record the song for me.
Meanwhile, Pete Morton, a well-known Nottinghamshire folk singer and a very talented songwriter, had seen my first set of lyrics somewhere. I got an e-mail from him on March 5, 2008, saying: "I've got a tune. It sounds very simple and traditional and works, I think. Very strong song. Well done! I'll record it asap."
Naturally, I was delighted by this and made a point of attending Pete's next London gig, where he played a verse or two of the tune he'd written for me just before going on. About a week later, Bernie Dembowski sent me a piano demo of his own tune for the ballad's first version, which he'd filled out with some swelling strings and a nicely doomy bass guitar part.

Case against: continued

September 9, 2009:
Scott Riley writes:
"Matximus, I appreciate your genuine feedback. I understood your point about trying to avoid sounding dated because that's flat-out artistic suicide. But, here are a few things to consider that you might not know.
      "Number one, this is the very first murder ballad I've ever taken a shot at. I found Paul on here and was compelled to give this a try. As I was reading the lyrics, I heard some music that I'd written a while back that I hadn't written lyrics for yet in my head. I figured, 'Hey, it's my first one like this. Why not get the cherry popped and get it over with?'
      "Secondly, in regards to your point about Dylan, it is a valid point. He didn't JUST write murder ballads, but when he read the story that inspired him to write The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, he must've felt that if he didn't write the song that he was going to go nuts. I kind of felt that way the more I worked on this song. In Dylan's case, it was a sad story that deserved to be told, and that's no different in this one.
      "Third, I know that the lyrics are kind of graphic. But then again, so was what happened to Nasra. If I watered down the facts, I don't think that it would've done her justice. I didn't do it to glamorize it at all; just to let the world know what happened to her. Truth be told, the more I worked on it, the more the gravity of the story began to sink in and the pressure for me to get it right bumped up, as well. So this was very much a labor of love for me. Hell, even the video on YouTube took me about seven to eight tries to get it right.
      "Well, I hope that you can understand where I'm coming from. Thanks again for your honesty."

September 9, 2009:
Matximus writes:
"Valid points. All of them.
      "I appreciate the obvious hard work that went into the effort. Her ordeal also clearly touched you in a profound way.
      "I guess it's just a taste thing, for me.
      "I do strongly disagree that watering down facts would be a disservice to the victim. Strongly disagree. In art, you don't need to be 100% factual to get at the truth of a situation. Not at all."

Matximus correspondence extracted from Harmony Central's songwriting forum. See sources for a link to the full thread.