Some Variations on Mark Lanegan




Some Variations on Mark Lanegan by H. Wechsler

The ghost of Kurt Cobain haunts the music of Mark Lanegan

September 16th, 2012 reset - +

for David Wechsler
  

We begin at the end, with two encores, one from Mark Lanegan’s recent Blues Funeral European tour, the other from a walk-on appearance during the Twilight Singers’ 2006 Powder Burns U.S. tour. We move on to a blues-heavy covers album, then a television broadcast, then an older album, then an older concert. Neil Young once sang, you know how time fades away; sometimes it even fades backwards. 

“Harborview Hospital” (Academy 2, Manchester, UK, 5/3/2012)

Eight nights into a European tour that began somewhere called Rockerfeller in Oslo and will end somewhere else called Sala Bikini in Barcelona, he’s wrapping up an intense, mostly wordless-except-the-music evening (he rarely talks between songs; even when he introduces the rest of the band, you can barely hear him or make out anyone’s name) before a Monday-night concert hall full of blokes, few of whom would remember him as a Screaming Tree or a Queen of the Stone Age, never mind a Soulsaver, most of whom either know him as a Gutter Twin and occasional Twilight Singer — same difference; both involve Greg Dulli and a rotating band — the other half of an Isobel Campbell duet, or the man behind what’s eponymously known these days as the Mark Lanegan Band. 

Someone would refer to him as “the king of bleak” in The Guardian a week later, but two songs into the encore we can only hear the echoey wall of guitars of Unforgettable Fire-era U2, his gruff, husky Tom-Waits-as-crooner voice (the same rock critic will call it a “deathly growl”) almost bouncy, as if he were rewriting “A Tisket, A Tasket” with new words like “they’re riding, they’re riding / a hellhound down the hill, / they’re sinking, they’re sinking / into the ocean, beautiful and still,” eyes barely open as he winces, his black mane flowing, mane and mic, t-shirt and tunic and trousers wrapping him in black like a rugged Snape from Harry Potter, or an even more rugged Neil Young.

Other words, phrases used to describe Mark Lanegan or his music: stark, dark, dense, dirgelike, brooding, narcotic, bare his soul, demons, densely beautiful, the Dark Side, soul-tormenting despair, junkyard ambience, the perpetual night of gloom, a dark old record, drenched in melancholy, damaged grandeur. Even the majority of his album titles border on the macabre: The Winding Sheet, Whiskey for the Holy Ghost, Scraps at Midnight, Blues Funeral. “He’s dressed like night and his eyes are mean,” wrote New Musical Express in 1998, when Lanegan was a mere 33 — perhaps meaning that 14 years later he would be here, wearing black, eyes narrowed, every troubled memory of walking past an old rehab in Seattle a dart in the otherwise bouncy melody. But the words and the way he delivers them work with the music as much as they oppose it, the same way “I saw a young girl who didn’t die” in Neil Young’s woeful, barely-post-Cobain “A Dream That Can Last” means both a young girl who died and a young girl who didn’t.

Jeff Metzner Photography

It’s typical Lanegan — bleak but transcendent, “a mystical union and the devil’s ascended / upon some crystal wings,” mercy and salvation and the difficulty of waking up down and damaged and the bliss of waking up, period. And when it’s over, despite the previous 19 songs or the fact he was in Bristol last night and will be in Dublin on Wednesday or the 47 years of being Mark Lanegan that can seem like half or double depending on the mood and the tone and the time and the lighting, he’s still not done for the night.

“Boogie Boogie” (with the Twilight Singers, Theatre of Living Arts, Philadelphia, PA, 11/13/2006) 

The Twilight Singers’ Greg Dulli is like Bruce Springsteen, if Rosalita were a whore and Jungleland were a brothel. (Someone I know who hates Dulli compares him to the Tasmanian Devil in both appearance and vocals. That works too.)

During his Live in New York City 2001 concert film and CD with the E Street Band, Springsteen exhorts the crowd, “Tonight I want to throw a rock’n’roll exorcism […] a rock’n’roll baptism […] and a rock’n’roll bar mitzvah!” Similarly, during the Twilights’ 2006 Powder Burns tour, Dulli closes out a wee-hours Sunday night set in Brussels screaming at the audience, “Come on, let’s be Italian! It’s only Sunday night in your head, people! For the next five minutes it’s motherfuckin’ Saturday!!!!”

Like Springsteen, Dulli is an evangelist, a bombastic carnival barker who believes in the gospel of rock’n’roll, the words of the prophet, a prophet who is black although, like Springsteen, Dulli himself isn’t; unlike Springsteen, Dulli hates himself for it. Also, where the recurring themes of Springsteen’s music are the struggles and triumphs of the working man in a perpetual economic depression, the leitmotifs of the Dullian oeuvre are drunkenness, desperation, and (preferably black) pussy. In other words, were he to lack the Boss’s endorsement in 2012, Obama wouldn’t exactly welcome Dulli’s, if Dulli were to care enough to endorse Obama rather than envy his projected mojo.

Somehow, Mark Lanegan, whose own recurring themes are ex-junkie transcendence, religious mysticism, and a more beatific and melancholy desperation, became an honorary Twilight Singer and went on tour with the band in 2006. Rather than opening for the Twilights or joining the band for the full set, Lanegan would emerge for a few haunting tracks (the Massive Attack cover “Live With Me,” his take on Bobby Bland’s 1959 “I’ll Take Care of You,” Lanegan’s own “Sideways in Reverse”) towards the beginning of the show, quickly fade away, then re-emerge during the encore for a few more songs. Tonight in Philadelphia he re-emerged to “Boogie Boogie,” a sludgy, threatening version of an obscure Tim Rose track whose bare, repetitive melody tells us nothing more than “Boogie, boogie, boogie now,/Boogie, boogie, boogie now, / Boogie, boogie, boogie now / Boogie, boogie, everybody boogie now” (or is it “boogie down,” or “boogie long,” or something else completely; even the utterly banal becomes mystifying when the singer is Lanegan).

Three total words, unless you want to count the “boogie” more than once for effect. Three words, pounding drums, angry throbbing guitars that would make you walk faster after sunset on an open road. The only word is menacing.

“Teenage Wristband,” the Twilights’ opener tonight, should be menacing, too. It’s not. It’s a terrific song, all ornate piano intro, soaring guitars, thumping drums, and the words are quintessential Dulli; he’s the unwanted boyfriend, the Crystals’ Rebel, Bobby on Twin Peaks, propositioning the would-be innocent teen Laura Palmer who in turn propositions him: “You wanna go for a ride? / I got sixteen hours to burn / and I’m gonna stay up all night” — but even the explicit curfew-breaking, authority-defying, have-you-seen-your-baby-mother-standing-in-the-shadows (not the other way around) moment, when Dulli screams/snarls, “Tell your mama fever come back again, /look what you started, / break it easy to your boyfriend,” isn’t menacing. Bacchanalian, probably. Hedonistic, definitely. But not menacing. He, Dulli, whoever is telling us he wants to go for a ride even when he’s got no more money to burn, may be hornier than the devil, but he just wants to fuck. And when he fucks, he’s happy. It’s that simple. Fucking = happiness.

Lanegan won’t bother to fuck — he won’t even always bother to look at you, whether it’s nerves or the moment or just ambivalence — and even if he would, he wouldn’t be happy. Ever.

He may be boogieing now, but he’s not enjoying himself. 

“Creeping Coastline of Lights” (I’ll Take Care of You, 1999, Sub Pop/Beggars Banquet)

Los Angeles tends to obscure the eerie with the obvious, but it’s plenty eerie. Half of it is being the end of the earth, “West of the West,” the West of death (the Black Dahlia, Sal Mineo, Sharon Tate, never mind the earthquakes and riots) and no return (Barton Fink’s W.P. Mayhew, who wants “to jus’ walk on down to the Pacific, an’ from there I’ll […] improvise”), somewhere, as Charles Bukowski once observed, that a man or woman can find more isolation than in Boise, Idaho. But half of it is the lights, and the light.

There's something about the environment here — the air, the atmosphere, the light — that makes everything shimmer,” wrote architect Coy Howard. “There's a kind of glowing thickness to the world — the diaphanous soup I was talking about, which, in turn, grounds a magic-meditative sense of presence.”

The Latin word for “light” is lux, from which we derive Lucifer, the “light-bearer” (lucem ferre), originally the Morning Star, Venus at dawn, eventually the fallen angel who would become the devil. Heaven is where the lights and the angels (los angeles) are — at least before they darken and fall, bearing the names of innocence and beauty as reminders of somewhere, something to which they can never return.

The lights, and the light, in LA are eerie because, like Freud’s dreams, they’re overdetermined, deriving meaning from everything at once — Heaven, Hollywood, blissed-out Hippieism, Mansonism, our own repressed traumas and unconsciouses we can exchange tomorrow for someone else’s — and yet totally meaningless without what we make them. LA is just lights, without any inherent context. “This is no place, / this takes place,” to quote the now-defunct LA band Deconstruction. Like Lucifer, something has been lost and can no longer be what it was, but unlike Lucifer, it never was to begin with.

Like other nominally LA-related songs whose singers are either moving to or moving out of LA (think the Rivieras’ “California Sun,” where “I’m goin’ out west where I belong,” or “Midnight Train to Georgia,” where “LA / proved too much for the man,” or even “LA Woman,” where Morrison “just got into town about an hour ago”), the Leaving Trains’ “Creeping Coastline of Lights” is about leaving Hollywood, / sunset to the sea. Even though Hollywood, LA, is the City of Light, the light the singer wants is somewhere else, “her light,” her “shinin white light / like a fountain.” The rest of the West Coast is just lights, a sunset behind him, the end of a bad Western, where he and his beloved can “ride in” (or out) “on horses.” 

When Lanegan covers “Creeping Coastline of Lights,” his normally world-weary delivery is simultaneously dreamlike, transcendent. Where the Trains’ original version is jagged and anxious (Will the singer ever actually find the light? Does the light even exist?), Lanegan’s version shimmers, languid, stoned immaculate. He says he’s looking for her light, but he sings as if he’s already found it. 

Lanegan isn’t from LA — he’s from Ellensburg, Washington; it’s the Trains who are from LA (founding member James Moreland, a.k.a. Falling James, now writes for the LA Weekly and was briefly married to Courtney Love) — but he’s of LA, eerie and ominous the way the lights of LA are eerie and ominous, lacking context beyond the empyrean and psychotropic.

Where context is missing, we either wander adrift without it or make our own. The myth of Hollywood allows us to do both. We can become no one, nothing, anonymous, a wavelength of white light and black sunsets (“pretty girl, / pretty pretty girl, / cease to exist, / just come an’ say you love me, / give up your world, / come on, you can be,” as a young Charles Manson once sang), simultaneously becoming exactly like everyone else, everywhere around the world: “we are all of us stars.” Who could resist? “The fact that Hollywood, while concealing under its glittering surface all manner of sins and perversions, pumped out the heartwarming fictions by which Middle America lived, made it irresistible as a place of disjuncture,” in the words of British rock critic Barney Hoskyns, who himself couldn’t resist.

As David Fine once noted about the Los Angeles novel, LA culture itself is “chiefly the work of the outsider,” someone not from but of in a way those who are from can never be. After all, when we’re from, lights are just lights, the light is just the light, we’re used to it, but when we’re of without being from, everything is a symbol. Wilson Carey McWilliams wrote in his 1968 essay “California: Notes of a Native Son” that “California is, first of all, a place to which men move […] and men move in response to symbols, ideas and images which are the foretaste of actuality. These symbols continue to exert a powerful influence on those who come to live in the state, shaping what they see and can perceive.” But symbols are ultimately neutral, and Hollywood ultimately a somewhere full of complex, often difficult real people as much as a something that other real people want and dream of.

Whoever sings “Creeping Coastline of Lights,” whether Falling James or Lanegan, is always leaving Hollywood; he’s never quite left. Whatever brought him there or kept him there is now just an uncomfortable brightness, a burning symbol, but it’s real, and it won’t let go.

“Wedding Dress” (Other Voices, RTÉ Television, November 2004) 

It begins with the backlit drummer. Then the metronomic bass and the organ curling through it, as he and the raven-haired backup singer hover, adjusting their mics, fog mixing with the light shining through the gothic windows behind them. His eyes dart suspiciously as he drones, Would you put on that long white gown…, wincing with some unbearable somethingness of being.

On the album version of “Wedding Dress,” off 2004’s Bubblegum, Lanegan’s backup singer is his soon-to-be ex-wife, Wendy Rae Fowler. Fowler would eulogize her two-year marriage to Lanegan as a “learning experience” in a 2008 interview, observing that “sometimes when he speaks, he sounds like a prophet.” The two had known each other for two years before marrying, but Lanegan was always a restless soul; the day after their wedding, he went out on the road without her. “He left for tour, and I was stuck standing there with my dick in my hand, saying, ‘What do I do now?’” 

“We are all, every one of us, full of horror,” wrote Michael Ventura in his essay “A Dance for Your Life in the Marriage Zone.” “If you are getting married to try to make yours go away, you will only succeed in marrying your horror to someone else’s horror, your two horrors will have the marriage, you will bleed and call that love.”

Marriage is difficult, or so I’m told. Some would say it’s impossible. As Ventura observed, “in marriage symbols often come first: first the instinct to join, then the symbolic joining, then the relentless reality of trying to join.” It’s relentless because it’s impossible — we can never actually become half of someone else; each of us is too many confused symbols and fantasies to even know who we are at any moment, never mind who the person we’re projecting ourselves onto is. But we try because it’s impossible. We try, as Ventura wrote, because we can never fully know all the “loyal but often nomadic manifestations” of ourselves, but we think we can know them, change them, even destroy them through our “other half,” whether consciously or unconsciously. The more we try, the more difficult it becomes, the more we need from him or her.

The singer in “Wedding Dress” isn’t just asking his beloved to wear a long white gown. In fact, there isn’t much he’s not asking her. “Will you walk with me underground/and forgive all my sicknesses and my sorrows?” he continues. “Will you be shamed if I shake like I’m dyin’/when I fall to my knees and I’m cryin’?” He wants his beloved with him, wherever he may go, however far down the descent may be.

In the studio Lanegan winces again as he pronounces dyin’ and cryin’, opening his eyes again blankly towards the crowd as he wraps up the verse and closing them again as he and the rest of the band sing the badada-da’s of the chorus. He barely sways as he clutches the mic and continues, “The end could be soon, / we’d better rent a room/so you can love me,” before the guitars take over.

Marriage being between two mortals, some end always comes, but the end that comes isn’t always the same. Sometimes it’s the world’s end, sometimes it’s merely our own. Ventura again: “There is a place in us where wounds never heal, and where loves never end. Nobody knows much about this place except that it exists, feeding our dreams and reinforcing and/or haunting our days. In marriage, it can exist with a vengeance.” We don’t just fail; our ideals fail. And when our ideals fail, we don’t just hate ourselves; we hate the other person we projected them onto.

But sometimes we live through this, too. Which may be why Lanegan’s last words in “Wedding Dress” are “We got buried in the fever, / now you love me,” recalling not only Johnny Cash, who sang We got married in a fever with future wife June Carter in “Jackson,” but Kurt Cobain, who confuses “married” and “buried” three times in “All Apologies.” Surviving the death of something and walking out the other end with something else, something better, may rarely happen — Lanegan and Fowler didn’t, romantically anyway; Cobain couldn’t survive, period — but it happens. 

Shortly after the album’s release, a British journalist asked Lanegan whether Bubblegum had laid any demons to rest. “No, but it woke some up,” he told the journalist. Divorcing your wife can wake up anyone’s demons. So can marrying her.

“Juarez” (The Winding Sheet, 1990, Sub Pop)

“Orange County Suite” was recorded two weeks before Jim Morrison died in his bathtub in Paris, which haunts me both as a Doors fan and because my brother, who wasn’t a rock star but was also troubled, died in his bathtub in Zürich 29 years after Morrison did. It’s as stark as any Doors song, a monotonous piano chord drowned in reverb and no other instruments, Morrison narcotically droning, black humor without affect. Ray Manzarek would summarize Morrison’s Paris sessions: “If you haven’t heard them, you’re missing nothing.” But he was wrong.

“Orange County Suite” is the tender Jim Morrison, remembering his lost love (“she was such a trip, she was hardly there / but I loved her / just the same), melancholy and regretful but enjoying it, detached from the memory the way drugs can detach, blissed-out and meaninglessly profound (“such a long long road to seek it, / all we did was break and freak it,” he sings, or “there was rain in our window, / the FM set was ragged”), nostalgic for things that may never have happened with someone who may never have existed.

One version, the version that would resurface on the Essential Rarities CD three decades later, rambles on for a few extra verses to a dreamlike, drugged-out reunion with his lost love, where “everything’s fine / and I’m still here / and you’re still there/and we’re still around,” but the better version ends suddenly barely a minute out, “We just blew it / and I’m not sad, / well I’m mad / and I’m bad.” It’s a false ending made false not because it won’t end but because it does, defying the death of something by redefining death as a joke. Morrison being Morrison, it actually works (who else could have gotten away with “I’ll always be a word man,/Better than a bird man,” from An American Prayer?).

Morrison’s death wasn’t a joke, of course — death in the real world never is; to reverse William Carlos Williams, poets die miserably every day from exactly what is found there — nor was my brother’s. Unlike Morrison, my brother — technically my half-brother, from my father’s previous marriage, who like my other Swiss half-brothers and half-sister I barely knew, growing up an ocean away — left two daughters and an ex-partner he referred to in Swiss-English as “the woman of my children” when he introduced her. He was drunk when I met him two nights before, but that night, in his tenement apartment that had once been firebombed by Neo-Nazis — my brother was a devoted and outspoken anarchist — at home with his daughters and the woman of his children and fellow anarchists from surrounding apartments, he was warm, engaged, talkative, connected. When I left, he gave me an EP by a Swiss punk band called Baby Jail, who sang in English words like “Music was my first love/and it will be my last,” vocals drowning their dying breath.

I wrote my brother a few times afterwards, normally around Christmas despite the fact that neither of us were Christian; for whatever reason he was uncomfortable writing back and eventually I gave up. One of the last letters I wrote to him also included a mix tape. Side One ended with “I Natt Jag Drömde,” a Swedish version of the old folk song “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream,” whose singer “dreamed the world had all agreed/to put an end to war.” Something of him was in the singer’s dream, I thought. But my brother had other dreams and, to quote Warren Zevon, who himself knew too well, some wars never end. Eventually my brother would lose the war he had fought with himself for 40 years. Four years later my sister woke me before sunrise one morning to tell me he was dead.

If “Orange County Suite” is the joke and my brother’s death is the reality, Mark Lanegan’s “Juarez” is the death-haunted border-town waystation between the two. (“So […] Jim Morrison never died […],” reads a comment on the YouTube page for “Juarez.”) The shortest track off his solo debut The Winding Sheet at 1:21, it begins where “Orange County Suite” left off, just co-writer Steve Fisk’s hurdy-gurdy organ, a false start and then the monotonous melody, as Lanegan’s scratchy voice slurs, “Night train is groovy,/an orange jubilee.” But where Morrison’s alcoholic is detached and nostalgic, a romantic at heart, Lanegan’s junkie, like most junkies, is greedy and blunt about what he wants: “Fire up the crack boys/and tie off my arm/Cinch up my diaper/Turn the TV on/Give me another blow job.” 

Mark Lanegan took heroin, went to rehab, relapsed, and took more heroin for almost 20 years. “It saved me from being an alcoholic,” he once noted with typical dark humor. It also killed his close friend Layne Staley of Alice in Chains, almost sabotaged his second album Whiskey for the Holy Ghost — the recording sessions took three years and four producers, and Lanegan almost threw the master tapes in the river — and brought him close enough to the abyss himself.

“Juarez” doesn’t romanticize heroin — it’s painful and sad and when it fades out at the end, Lanegan lamenting “Well you’re a preacher’s daughter / and I’m a bastard’s son,” it’s pure gallows humor, it’s like death, it’s hopeless — but it’s also hopelessly beautiful. And the more you know what he knows, bleed the way he bleeds, have lost as much as he’s lost, the more hopeless and beautiful it is.

“[L]uckily, some people can connect to this shit, this music, that aren’t junkies,” Lanegan once told an interviewer. “But I always figured that I was making this music for my own people.” As Lanegan himself proves, whether it’s junk or coke or hard liquor or what Winston Churchill called the Black Dog of Depression, sometimes, with or without the help of music, those who wrestle with it make it out the other end. But sometimes they don’t. 

“Where Did You Sleep Last Night” (“Frequenze Disturbate 2002,” Fortezza Albornoz, Urbino, Italy, 8/2/2002)

Kurt Cobain loved Leadbelly. “Leadbelly is one of the most important things in my life. I’m totally obsessed with him,” he told a journalist in 1993. When Cobain met William S. Burroughs in Kansas, he gave the writer a Leadbelly biography to sign. Later, he would conclude the November 1993 MTV Unplugged concert that would become Nirvana’s first posthumously released album with a cover of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” commenting, “This was written by my favorite performer.” He learned the song from Mark Lanegan, who owned the 78 rpm record courtesy of his father’s attic full of blues records. (When asked by Raygun Magazine in a 1994 interview to describe the music of his debut album, Lanegan responded, “Quiet […] death dirges […] I like to listen to that scary kind of country blues from the Twenties and Thirties.”) Lanegan, Cobain, and Nirvana bass player Krist Novoselic even recorded an EP of Leadbelly songs; though it was never released, Lanegan would include “Where Did You Sleep,” with Cobain — credited as “Kurdt Kobain” — on electric guitar and Novoselic — credited as “Chris Novoselic” — on bass, on his 1990 solo debut, The Winding Sheet. (“Kobain” would also provide background vocal on the fourth track, “Down in the Dark.”) 

Tonight in Urbino, Italy, during a rock festival at the Albornoz Fortress, Lanegan, bathed in blue light, shrouded with fog, wraps up an intense, bare-bones set with “Where Did You Sleep,” right hand clutching the mic to his mouth as he sways nervously, his body otherwise wooden, a chain dangling from his right pocket as he half-growls, half-mumbles about somebody who “was a hard-workin’ man” until “his head was found inna driver’ wheel / an’ his body never was found,” guitar tolling behind him like a metronome of death. (“I like the blood and guts theme of it: betrayal and murder,” Lanegan once noted of “Where Did You Sleep.”) When he reaches the chorus a second time — slurring “my girl, my girl, don’ lie to me/tell me where did you sleep last night,/in the pines, in the pines, where the sun never shine/I was shiver’ whole night through” — he adds, “Shiver with me now,” pauses, crouches, re-emerges with a lit cigarette (from an audience member?), then remains frozen, microphone raised in mid-air, swaying occasionally as the guitars lurch and thud and eventually twist and swirl in the billowing smoke that surrounds him before rasping the chorus, “my girl, my girl, don’ lie to me,” again.

When I hear “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” whether Nirvana’s version or Lanegan’s or even Leadbelly’s original “Black Girl (In the Pines),” I think not of a woman on the run or a dead or jealous man but of Kurt Cobain, age 18, manic depressive and broke, sleeping beneath the North Aberdeen Bridge by the Wishkah River in his hometown of Aberdeen, Washington for a week, between renting an apartment he could no longer afford and crashing at Novoselic’s apartment. Someone who knew him then would remember Cobain in the wild as “hunkered down among the pilings and holly bushes, with a fire going and the continuous joints and cheap wine;” Cobain himself would later sing “Underneath the bridge, / The tarp has sprung a leak” in “Something in the Way.”

Like Lanegan, Cobain would also end up in Italy, in March of 1994, at the Rome Excelsior on the Via Veneto, where, exhausted from a tour during which, in the words of biographer Christopher Sanford, his voice “had deteriorated to a throaty, stylized snarl,” he drank two bottles of champagne in his room one night, took fifty Rohypnols, wrote a suicide note, went into a twenty-two hour coma, and survived. If it wasn’t the beginning of the end — the end had already begun long before — it was almost the end of the end. Four weeks later he was dead. 

Eric Weisbard once wrote that Cobain’s “Where Did You Sleep” was so definitive that “there is really no need for anyone to ever sing it again.” But a few months after Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged was released, Cobain’s widow closed a show in New York with her own Cobainesque version of “Where Did You Sleep,” and eight years after that, 15 years after turning Cobain on to Leadbelly, Lanegan was playing a festival in a fortress, drowning in the blue fog, urging the crowd to shiver with him.

The ghost of Kurt Cobain haunts the music of Mark Lanegan: the drugs, the dark moods, the knowing, even when mere knowing doesn’t help and can’t matter. But of course Kurt Cobain’s music was always haunted by Mark Lanegan, the ghost that wouldn’t die, wearing black, sleeping in the pines and shivering the whole night through.

¤

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