8 – David Ackles: His Name is Andrew


In 7:8, my form class at comprehensive school, I was one of three Andrews. I was then one of four in my college year group (of around one hundred and twenty people in total). It seems that the early 1980s were a bumper time for Andrews; they jostled with Jameses, Thomases and Marks at the top of the table. I was therefore a bit taken aback at the most popular baby names survey in 2009. While James and Thomas were still right there in the top ten, Andrew didn’t even make the first hundred. My name has begun to date me; just as my dad’s Nigel marks him out as a baby-boomer, Andrew reduces me to ‘progeny of the Thatcher era’. Boo. Boo-hoo, in fact.

It’s not as if there are many exciting Andrews in history either. There’s the apostle, of course, and the patron saint of Scotland. But literature produces scant pickings. Andrew Marvell is a good one, but he’s a conspicuous exception (compare this woeful situation to that of my partner William – he has Shakespeare, Blake and Wordsworth as his guides). Not much from the other arts either. I have to look abroad for my mentors, and they’re an odd crew side by side: Andy Warhol, Andrei Rublev, the Andrés Gide and Breton. A healthy gamut of sacred to profane, I suppose. Present day Andrews are less encouraging. Aside from a few sportsmen (Andy Murray, Andrew Flintoff, who goes by the name of Freddie, for crying out loud), we have, er, Andrew Neil (damn), Prince Andrew (double damn) and Andrew Lloyd Webber (fucking hell). Deed poll seems quite attractive at this point. I’m not even celebrated in song. If I were a Daniel, I’d have Natasha Khan breathing sweetly in one ear and Elton John serenading me in the other (and if I were a sculptor…but then again, no). If I went by my middle name, Michael, I’d be a beautiful dance whore, according to Alex Kapranos. Blimey.

Argh, enough of these scenarios. Let’s confirm it once and for all. I work in a canning factory. I have no friends. And I’m having a spiritual crisis.

Such is life for the protagonist in David Ackles’ ‘His Name is Andrew’, which may yet be one of my funeral songs. When I first played it to my parents, after discovering Ackles through one of those ‘forgotten masterpieces’ features in Mojo magazine, they initially laughed at its grimness. It seemed portentous to them; Ackles’ intonation of my own name was morbid to the point of amusement. It chills me every time I hear it, though I’ve listened to it countless times now, and the initial novelty of hearing myself addressed is less potent than it once was. I’m more fascinated nowadays by Andrew’s everyman resonance. Ackles’ otherworldly prayer makes him archetypal, turning him into a kind of anonymous folk hero – an unknown soldier in humanity’s battle against its own apparent meaninglessness. His anonymity means that Ackles can only reveal the barest of details, though they are enough.  In fact, ‘His Name is Andrew’ is a very rare popular song indeed, one that confronts the void without flinching, yet achieves its greatness in what is omitted or only hinted.

We are offered mere snapshots of Andrew’s life. A happy, unquestioning child, living ‘in a world of innocence’, begins to doubt the possibility of divine love and grace as he grows older. His faith wavers, though he nevertheless imagines that God will still redeem him. While the drudgery of Monday compromises the devotions of Sunday, it may not always be thus; and so he finds himself stumbling through the thicket to a ‘lighted place’. However, on reaching it, he encounters not the light of Christ, but another kind of enlightenment altogether – the voice of a preacher in the trees whispering ‘God is dead’; ‘and he believe[s] him’. Lastly, the narrator comes clean, and drops his mask. ‘My name is Andrew’, he confesses, in a simple, breathtaking twist. ‘I work in a canning factory, / I do not have a friend, / I choose to wait alone for this life to end’. Up to this point, the song has been strophic in form. It’s one of the oldest musical structures, frequently found in folk music – most of Dylan’s material follows this standard, built around long, repeated verses rather than the more usual pop standby of verse-chorus-middle eight.  ‘His Name is Andrew’ concludes with a half-verse, a wispy coda fading out in irresolution. The cycle isn’t completed. How could it be, now that we know it is Andrew himself who sings? To finish the last verse would be to bow out, to bring down the curtain.

These lyrics turn away from the edge, though they know well what lies below it. But the song’s magnificence lies in the way they interact with the tense, tortuous melody and an arrangement that negotiates the knife-edge between numinous and satanic. Though the strophic form is simple, the chordal structure is anything but. Ackles takes us through a series of enharmonic false relations, modulations that pivot on one common note but move into only dimly related keys. All lives end on a precipice, but the route there is a convolution of concealed entrances and subterranean tunnels; it’s like Bach leading the blind.

‘His Name is Andrew’ isn’t interested in clearing a way for the listener, then. It wants us to grope our way to the altar, to sit at our orisons in the half-light. In fact, God never appears; his adversaries are strong and numerous. If you listen carefully each time Andrew waits ‘for his life to end’, you hear a dissonant organ chord darkening in the background. That’s a tritone, the mythical diabolus in musica; Satan hovers in the air. Meanwhile, the professions of faith in the song are actually suspensions of disbelief; literally – the chords do not resolve. Belief is only ever doubt held in temporary abeyance. The baroque organ instrumentals, with their swirling crescendos, almost break this impasse. As they reach the final suspension, we shiver apprehensively on that precipice. Will they resolve into a triumphal major chord, or a nightmarish minor? Is that an archangel materialising in the fug, or are we about to plunge into the heart of darkness? Will the epiphany be divine or diabolical? I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that these organ figures are a life spirit hoping to outrun fate. They are a shimmering burst of sound and fury. Signifying nothing? It would seem so. As we say goodbye to Andrew, the tritone returns, now accompanied by the toll of a bell. The canning factory is clocking off.

Music critics have long heard Jacques Brel in Ackles’ work. He’s certainly there, as is his American disciple, Scott Walker. But where Walker’s chocolatey baritone might force Andrew out of smalltown America and into the coffee houses of the Old World, Ackles’ priestly, almost puritanical delivery places him squarely in the pews of a plain clapboard chapel. Scott Walker’s deathly imaginings come from watching Bergman’s Seventh Seal. Ackles’s are far removed from Europe. His most admired album is American Gothic after all, a nod to the iconic Grant Wood painting. I’ve always seen more than a shadow of the devil’s trident in that pitchfork, and this is Andrew’s world, a fallen Eden where every symbol is double-edged: America itself, the America of Sleepy Hollow and the House of Usher. But it isn’t just a song about the Andrews Jackson and Carnegie; it’s for all Andrews across the world, regardless of root or branch.  It’s my favourite song about death, and therefore one of my favourite songs about life – that brief votive candle flickering in the wick, burning its illusory shadow into the walls.


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6 responses to “8 – David Ackles: His Name is Andrew

  1. One day late – next week, we will be back on track (so to speak) for a prompt Friday entry!

  2. Thanks for this excellent piece about a difficult Ackles song! Your elegant interpretation of its music and lyrics has just sent me back to the song with a new understanding. Mind if I put up a link to this post on my Ackles site?

    • Thanks Kasper – glad you appreciated it! Absolutely no problem to put a link on your website. All the best!

      • Kasper Nijsen

        Hi, I just stumbled on here again while trying to work out the chords to this song to put on the Ackles site. And I wonder: have you every figured these out? I’ve got the melody down as well as most of the chords, but some parts of the harmony still elude me.

  3. Hi Kasper – they’re pretty unconventional! I only play the piano so I’m not too good at producing tabs, but I could have a go at just providing the chords as I hear them – I’ll have a listen and a think and get back to you!

    • Kasper Nijsen

      Yes, let me know! I’m playing along on the piano as well. And I know beginning is C#, brief shift to B9 or something, and later into Em. But then I’m lost untill the end of the verse, which is probably an A (changing into C between verses).

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