A DEATH RUNE FOR JOHN MURPHY
July 11th 1959 - October 11th 2015
It was an unusually calm October afternoon at my ancestral summer house in the countryside of Southern Finland. It is an old house by the sea, surrounded by forest. A slight haze of clouds drifted slowly across the sky. Sometimes the cold sun would come out from behind the clouds, but it was far away and did not warm us anymore this late in the year. It was very quiet, as the birds had left for warmer regions for the winter. Everything was still. It felt like something was missing.
We had come here to light a twilight fire for the newly departed. This time of year, harvest time, is thought of traditionally as a time when the veils between worlds are thin. As I started building the fire on the shore, a lone white swan drifted close by and seemed to be overseeing what was happening. In Finnish folk-religion and mythos, there is a mystical swan that swims around Tuonela, the land of the dead. It was a good sign.
I had brought John Murphy to this place a few times over the years. We had bathed in the sauna, sat by a fire on the cliffs, talked and stared over the ocean. This time, it was to be a different fire – a funeral fire.
I knew John Murphy for well over a decade, since the early 2000's. I had, of course, known about John and appreciated his work well before I knew him personally. He was a creative, talented and productive lifelong musician, a multi-instrumentalist, drummer and percussionist. John had dedicated his life to music. He had seemingly worked with “everyone” in the industrial, post-punk, ambient, neo-folk and related underground music circles (SPK, Orchestra of Skin and Bone, Nico from the Velvet Underground, Death In June, Boyd Rice & Non, Current 93, Whitehouse, Blood Axis, Naevus, Of the Wand and the Moon, Die Weisse Rose, ad infinitum), not to mention his own bands and projects including Kraang, Shining Vril, Knifeladder, Foresta di Ferrio, Last Dominion Lost, and others.
Many people have probably seen John Murphy perform with Death In June, whom he was the live- drummer of for many years, giving the shows some of their ritualistic force. I too first met John when I drove him and Douglas P. (of Death In June) from Helsinki to Tampere for a performance. In conversation he told me about the significance of the “Knife ladder”, which gave name to one of his bands: there is an Asian tradition where, during a special time, a group of select men climb a tall ladder of sharp knives in order to “open the heavenly gates”, as well as invoke benefits for their people in attendance. It is a dangerous, spiritual ordeal, where the goal is something often intangible - such as blessings. I would like to think that this told something about John's own musical performances and even his life as whole – that it was a sometimes dangerous, sometimes painful, but ultimately honorable and spiritual journey towards a perhaps elusive end. Indeed, those who knew John, knew that he was essentially a gnostic, endlessly curious and ever seeking both knowledge and experience of various, wide-ranging fields of esoteric tradition.
Over the years, I met John in various countries throughout Europe, often connected to some musical event. But it was only when he was down on his luck, having been denied re-entry into the UK for various dubious reasons, that I perhaps really got to know John. He needed some help and a place to sort things out, and so he stayed at my home in Helsinki for some time. He was in a rather dour mood. The UK had been, if not his home, at least his base. He was missing his wife to-be, Annie, and he was missing his friends and band. All of it was taxing on his health. On top of it all, in trying to enter the UK, he had been thrown in a cell, during which he had lost some jewelry of personal significance. I gave him my Finnish Ukko's (the thunder god) hammer pendant in the hope that it would help alleviate the lost lucky charms.
I have some vivid memories of this time in early spring of John staying at my place. In the daytime we visited various places of interest in Helsinki – historical sights, museums, music shops – or simply took a walk by the sea. In the evening, we often sat around, listening to music and talking late into the night. Our conversations would often cover a wide array of interests in the fields of esoterica, culture, history and music. John had led an eventful life and was full of interesting stories, delivered with his often sardonic wit and extremely dry sense of humor. During those nights, we also watched several classic films, such as The Night Porter, Carnival of Souls and Night Tide (which is sampled heavily on the album that John was part of making, Alarm Agents by Death In June & Boyd Rice).
It was out of these nightly sojourns that an interview arose, which we conducted in the black room of my house over the course of a few days. It covers John's background as a drummer, as well as his experiences with more special areas of percussion, such as “voodoo drumming” and Indian tablas; his interest and experiences with a variety of worldwide metaphysical healing techniques and harmonic vocal sound therapies; his involvement with the seminal industrial event of the eighties, “The Equinox Event”, as well as his portrayal in the book England's Hidden Reverse; his role in the film Dogs in Space, where he played a biker on crutches; his experiences playing with Nico, Orchestra of Skin and Bone, and Whitehouse; the ideas of Vril, Odic force or orgone energy; and his interest in gnosticism and hermeticism. The interview is soon being published posthumously through our podcast Radio Wyrd – available at www.radiowyrd.fi
It was also during this time that we collaborated musically. The result was a cover-version of the classic tune “Wenn ich mir was wünschen dürfte”, made famous by Marlene Dietrich. We recorded it with our band of that time, MAA, and it appeared later as the last song, “Toive”, on our album Tuhkankantajat (put out by the label Anima Arctica). The track took shape one evening in my living room, where we had set up our various devices, effects and recording equipment and dimmed the lights down. Afterwards, John's mood seemed elevated above the difficulties he had been facing. I overheard him on the phone to his girlfriend Annie, saying how he had been really low from all that had been happening, but that now the music had uplifted his spirits.
We also recorded several of John's drum solos, where he free-flowed, “Captain Beefheart” style, on my old Ludwig drum kit. Being a drummer myself, I could appreciate John as a classically trained percussionist with his distinctly original style of drumming. If he was sometimes laconic in person, he was always expressive and bombastic behind his instruments. The music was his language.
A year or two later, I organized John's and Annie's wedding in Helsinki. The festivities were held in a cavelike restaurant named Walhalla, built into old castle walls on a small island off the coast. The place had reputedly been used as a meeting place for secret societies in the past, so I thought it was a perfect fit - not to mention the name which comes from the feasting hall of the slain heroes of Odin. On that warm high summer day, I remember seeing John and Annie walking on the grassy wall of the sea fortress, the open ocean wide behind them, the sky above them filled with seagulls. It was the happiest I have ever seen John.
In the following years, I kept in contact with John and would meet him on an irregular basis. I could see how his dedication to his music and perhaps the lifestyle that it had required, were wearing down on his health. We had talked about collaborating again on a project. Send me those horn sounds, he would say, referring to animal horn trumpets I had played for him. But time was against us.
As the sun was setting, against the darkness I lit the funeral fire with a piece of birch inscribed with runes. I rang a bell nine times, into all nine worlds. We called on all gods and goddesses, ancestors and friends, present and far away, to be with us here, at this crossing of worlds.
I had brought a special Odin-beer to toast with, and now, I filled the drinking horn to the brim. John had been an Odinic seeker of knowledge and of the great secrets themselves, so it seemed suitable.
First, some of the liquid was poured on the ground by the fire. Then, words and libations were raised high for John.
As I held the horn and spoke, a tear ran down my face. “Friends are few and rare indeed”, as the song goes, and today one of them had left this world. But John had never necessarily believed that this earthly plane was the only world, and so we wished him a safe passage to the next one, whatever that might be.
It is hard to write about death without sentimenal clichés. Still, most clichés are rooted in truths that have become such only in our postmodern world, where sincerity is rarely valued.
John, you better fucking hear me now, I said aloud, as if thinking to myself. He always had problems with his cell-phones and was often hard to reach. I had tried contacting John several times during the week before he passed, but much to my disappointment, had never reached him before it was too late. Now, every time I raised my voice in libation, the silence would be broken by sudden waves that would come crashing in on the shore, or someone would start banging on something in the distance. Perhaps John could hear us after all.
As the drinking horn was drained and the libations came to an end, I took the last bundle of birches that remained from summer and burned them, holding them above the fire. They burned with a glistening flame. Then, quietly, we watched as the pieces of glowing ash rose up in the air and drifted above the surface of the mirrorlike sea, flickering against the darkening sky.
Have a good journey, my friend.
- Aki Cederberg, Helsinki-Porvoo, October 14th