One Song at a Time – Massive Attack’s Protection

Posted on August 5, 2012

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Lounge room, Yarraville. One a.m. February 1996

Story by Nick Gadd

There’s been nothing in my life as simultaneously scary, joyful and baffling as holding my first child. Many aspects of life were recalibrated. Among them, I discovered new dimensions to one of my favourite pieces of music.

Genevieve was born at the old Mercy Hospital in East Melbourne in February, 1996. During labour, a foetal heart monitor showed that her heart rate was irregular, meaning that she was in distress due to an infection. The medical staff recommended an emergency Caesar. She spent her first night in an incubator in the premature babies’ ward, although she was a full-term baby and much bigger than the prems.

Unlike the nurses in the maternity ward, who handle babies with the dexterity of waiters carrying plates in busy restaurants (two babies asleep on one arm, another on the shoulder for burping) new parents are tentative and full of doubts. How do you hold your baby? What does that cough mean? Is the crying normal?

When we brought Genny home, we hardly knew anything. Gradually we learned how to hold, feed, bathe and dress her;  got used to her expressions, her cries; wondered at the surprising strength in her back and vigorous legs, the softness of her face, the smoothness of her skin, her tiny fingers.

During her first few weeks Genny suffered bouts of colic which resulted in her screaming and thrashing around, unable to sleep. It’s a common condition, but as new parents, we found it difficult enough. In the middle of the night, after Lynne had fallen into an exhausted doze, I would take the baby out to the lounge room. With Genny squalling  on my shoulder I’d slot a tape into the machine and play Protection,  the seven-minute song that opens the classic 1994 album of the same name.

As the intro started, with its hypnotic bassline, hi-hat and repeated guitar chord, I would stand swaying in the darkness and try to relax myself, and Genny. Then Tracey Thorn’s beautiful, echoing voice came in, somehow both vulnerable and strong at the same time. As I rocked my baby on my shoulder, to the heartbeat-like rhythm of the song, I’d hear:

This girl I know, needs some shelter …

The song is about wanting to protect the people you love. It is about offering unconditional love, even when you can’t fix the problem.

You can’t change the way she feels, but you could put your arms around her.
That’s just part of the deal, that’s the way I feel,
I’ll put my arms around you.
I’ll stand in front of you, I’ll take the force of the blow.
Protection.

As the song went on, Genny’s squirming, distraught body would soften to a quiet, breathing bundle moulded against my shoulder. If the first song didn’t soothe her – and it usually took more than seven minutes – the rest of the album eventually did. However tired I was, once she was asleep, I would remain there, dead tired, like a competitor in a dance marathon, rocking automatically, not daring to put her down in case I broke the spell.

Over the next few months Genny and I must have listened to that song, and the rest of the album, dozens of times, more than enough for me to memorise the lyrics. The song reminds us that human relationships are reciprocal:

 You’ve got a baby of your own, when your baby’s grown
She’ll be the one to catch you when you fall.

When people asked me how I was coping with disturbed sleep – and people delight in asking new parents this question – I would reply that I was treating Genny’s colic with trip-hop. Just as importantly, though, the song gave me an idea of what it meant to be a parent. You can listen to all the parenting advice in the world and lament your lack of qualifications for it, but fundamentally the task is simple:

  I’ll stand in front of you, I’ll take the force of the blow.
Protection.

I played the song again a few months ago and Genny, now a teenager, said “I remember this song”. No doubt she’s heard it again in the meantime. But we know so little about the way babies’ brains work that it seems possible to me that Protection was imprinted on hers like an impression in soft wax, during those long sleepless nights when she was only a few weeks old.

Nick Gadd is the author of the award-winning novel Ghostlines.  His daughter Genny’s musical tastes these days include The Beatles, The Ramones and Elliot Smith.

Protection – official video clip

Protection – as performed by Everything But The Girl

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