Monday, January 2, 2023

Remembering Terry Hall of The Specials

Members of The Specials, with Terry Hall in center front, pose for a newspaper photo.
Terry Hall, center, with The Specials and Rico (Image: Coventry Telegraph)
(By Steve Shafer)

The news of Terry Hall's death on December 18 at age 63 from pancreatic cancer landed like a sucker punch to the gut--and I've been wrestling with how to process and write about it ever since. Several wonderfully insightful pieces about Hall's music and life already have been published--including Alexis Petridis' "Terry Hall was the self-assured eye of the Specials storm" in The Guardian and Neil Kulkarni's "Coventry & A Spirit Of Unbelonging: Terry Hall Remembered" in The Quietus. And Billy Bragg summed up Hall's and The Specials' impact so incredibly well in 280 characters. So, I'm not sure what I can add (but I need to add something).

As I write this, the terrible news of Pelé's death is just sinking in. I had seen him play at Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands in 1977 when I was 11, during his final season with the Cosmos. I've always considered it to be one of the highlights of my life, to have witnessed the greatest soccer player of all time in action, even if past his prime. While I'm reluctant to admit it, it's hitting me harder than Hall's passing--and forcing me to realize that I've always held Terry Hall at a bit of a distance, though I shouldn't be.

Even though he was the phenomenal, irreplaceable voice of my beloved Specials, Hall's dour and perpetually acerbic (though often bitingly funny) public persona left me cold. He was someone who could put anyone in their place with a quick, cutting remark. A man of few words, but they always hit their mark. I've always been wary of and felt at a disadvantage interacting with people this quick and sharp. (I have to mull things over--and often take longer than I'd like to admit to sort out the truth of a situation and articulate my thoughts.)

Having said all that and without ever having met him, I can immediately relate to several aspects of Hall's life and death. For several years after college, I worked as a caseworker at a residence for people with chronic mental illness (much later in his life, Hall was diagnosed as suffering from bipolar disorder). About five years ago, I witnessed a friend of mine--only a few months younger than me--undergo grueling treatment and slowly die from pancreatic cancer. And I've been a devoted fan of The Specials ever since first hearing "Ghost Town" in 1981.

Hall's detached and dispassionate vocals--often delivered standing stock still while the rest of the band exploded in furious motion behind him (as Petridis points out, see the closing credits of Dance Craze)--and fuck-all attitude made him the perfect frontman for The Specials, whose songs were mostly about how adults and their institutions had largely failed their generation. His disaffection with the world was not a pose. Growing up, he was subjected to one of the most horrific betrayals of adult trust imaginable.

At age 12, Hall was kidnapped by a teacher on a school trip in France and sexually abused by a pedophile ring for four days before being punched in the face and discarded on the side of a road. The trauma Hall suffered triggered a deep depression, whose treatment left him addicted to Valium for years and housebound for months (he also dropped out of school when he was 14). Hall also likely experienced emotional numbing--an unconscious psychological defense/survival mechanism common to people who have been severely traumatized where the brain attempts to lessen the pain by dampening all emotions (leaving someone who seems distanced, detached, and unfeeling).

It's not a stretch to argue that this abduction and sexual assault--in addition to his experience of growing up in a decaying, unfashionable Coventry in the 1970s (see Kulkarni's piece above)--lent Hall's voice and stage presence a unique authority and authenticity. In his alienation, cynicism, and emotional remove lay his power as he sang about everything around him--endemic racism and racial violence; working-class youth denied opportunity, purpose, even a satisfying night of fun by a government that didn't give a damn about their future; and the shared constant dread of all life being wiped out in a nuclear war. But his detachment didn't mean that Hall didn't care deeply about how the litany of society's unaddressed and intentionally aggravated ills was impacting Britain's youth. He was just clear-eyed about their plight. And everyone loved him for it.

Two of The Specials' greatest songs that bookend the original band's brief existence--Dammers' "Nite Klub" and Hall's own composition "Friday Night, Saturday Morning"--are both about the inability to take pleasure in a night out on the town. In "Nite Klub," Hall's deadpan delivery of the lyrics "I'm a parasite/I creep about at night" is spectacularly ambiguous. Is this meant to be sarcastic, commenting on the establishment's view of working-class youth on the dole? Or has the narrator internalized mainstream society's low opinion of him and his lot? And the suddenly released white-hot anger in the last line of this verse is devastating: "I don't work/'Cause I don't have to/I don't have to work/There's no, no work to do!" How can you have fun (or be a productive member of society, for that matter) when your life's going nowhere?

The narrator of "Nite Klub" is still hitting the nightspots a few years later in "Friday Night, Saturday Morning," but the piss and vinegar in his belly is gone. It's all now bleakly rote. Hall's unembellished singing conveys the track's boredom, futility, and despair extraordinarily well. But this portrait of Britain's forsaken youth is drawn with great empathy, not self-pity or anger at the powers that be (though Thatcher's the subtle target). And Hall's song contains one of the most universally relatable--and bluntly heartbreaking!--lyrics in pop music history: "Wish I had lipstick on my shirt/Instead of piss stains on my shoes."

In a 2019 interview with Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Theatre Podcast, Hall stated:

"I find it quite easy to forgive and forget. It’s like, you know, going back to my abduction, it’s like you can let that eat away at you but then well you know it’s paedophilia and it’s like part of life really.

"It’s unfortunate it happened to me but you can’t just let it destroy your life, it’s not good."

While there's much to unpack here (the forgiveness, his resilience), Hall's observation that child sexual abuse is "like part of life" is shocking. But considering what took place in the Catholic Church worldwide for decades--and god knows in how many other institutions that dealt with children--he's not wrong, is he? 

Clear-eyed to the end.

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I offer my deepest condolences to Terry Hall's family, bandmates, friends, and fans.

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(Updated on 1/3/2023 to include information on emotional numbing.)

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