Thursday, May 3, 2018

REM and Springsteen

AM isn't shy about rating rock music as poetry, as the past couple posts show. There are those, indeed, who associate themselves more with poets more than musicians; first and foremost, Dylan. Robbie Robertson said, "I learned early on with Bob that the people he hung around with were not musicians. They were poets, like Allen Ginsberg. When we were in Europe, there’d be poets coming out of the woodwork. His writing came directly out of a tremendous poetic influence, a license to write in images that weren't in the Tin Pan Alley tradition or typically rock 'n' roll, either." Last year, the Nobel Prize committee agreed, raising Dylan's literary status far above his music.

Over time, the Tin Pan Alley set has gained in reputation as well; how could they not with lyricists like Cole Porter wielding words like a magic wand: "Let me live 'neath your spell/ You do that voodoo that you do so well." Ira Gershwin, who, unlike Porter, only wrote lyrics, exemplified the five essential points of poetry: words; wide-ranging subject matter; imagery; symbolism; and sound effects (alliteration, meter and a myriad of elements that the average listener dismisses as secondary to rhyme. In this, we understand why rap's gangsta days seem so trivial, even comical, while hip-hop in 2018 wins the Pulitzer Prize). Here's an example from Gershwin: "There is somebody I'm longing to see,/ I hope that she/ turns out to be,/ Someone to watch over me" – incredible rhyme, wonderful interpolation of sounds, fabulous meter.

Despite the image of loud guitars, pounding drums and incomprehensible vocals, great rock music starts with lyrics. The other elements of rock music shape themselves around the words, extending and strengthening them. People sometimes argue that the words in rock songs can't be all that important, because they are often so hard to decipher or even to hear. Yet there is a holographic quality to great art, in that the message of a piece is embedded in the whole of the work. Take REM, for instance (or in the extreme, Cocteau Twins). The lyrics at times are incomprehensible. "Swan Swan H" contains remarkable lyrics that no one (not even the rain) can fully understand.

Swan, swan, hummingbird
Hurrah we are all free now
What noisy cats are we
Girl and dog he bore his cross
A long low time ago people talk to me

Johnny Reb what's the price of fans
Forty a piece or three for one dollar?
Hey captain don't you want to buy
Some bone chains and toothpicks?

Poignancy in the guise of gibberish. Oh, don't think that I’ll sit here and decipher its meaning as a whole; remember that it's words + meter + subject matter + symbolism +… The song represents confusion, particularly of a young man growing up in the South with grand stories of Johnny Reb's heroics, a conflict enmeshed in a young man's southern outlook. We grow up with our heroes and down, crashing, they come.

The tune's incredible rhetoric and pace make for glorious poetry. Thoughts negating thoughts, words cut short like great filmmaking in which dialogue, you know, like real life, overlaps, is filled with cutoffs and incomplete sentences – it can indeed be disconcerting. The song defies clarity, even though such confusion is commonplace in our real speech.

Dylan avoided such an avant-garde approach to concentrate on subject, initially writing protest songs about political and social issues, but then transitioning to very personal subjects. Once he demonstrated the possibilities, others followed. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's Déjà vu is the perfect example. On this one collection we find songs about passing wisdom from one generation to the next ("Teach Your Children"), the importance of nonconformity ("Almost Cut My Hair"), the inability to escape one's past ("Helpless"), the nature of the emerging counter-culture ("Woodstock"), an almost suicidal expression of despair ("4 + 20") and simple domesticity ("Our House"), elements that make the primary mode of appreciation for the art form more akin to poetry. Words are used to encapsulate, preserve and amplify a particular experience, sensation, thought or feeling. In the space of a few verses and a chorus, just enough is said to convey the intended meaning.

The perfect example of rock poetry as storytelling is found in Bruce Springsteen's earliest work and again, in a song that could be considered the ultimate in storytelling, "The River." Springsteen's sister Ginny became pregnant at age 18 and quickly married her child's father, Mickey Shave, who took a construction job to support his family. "They had to struggle very hard back in the late Seventies like so many people are doing today," Springsteen said. He turned their story into his most moving working-class lament, a slow, sparse ballad with a mournful harmonica that sounds a bit like a funeral dirge. "Every bit of it was true," Ginny told Springsteen biographer Peter Ames Carlin. "And here I am, completely exposed. I didn't like it at first – but now it's my favorite song." Those words may sum up rock lyrics as poetry: "completely exposed."

Then I got Mary pregnant
And man that was all she wrote
And for my nineteenth birthday
I got a union card and a wedding coat
We went down to the courthouse
And the judge put it all to rest
No wedding day smiles, no walk down the aisle
No flowers, no wedding dress

Funny, all the dreams of "Born to Run" are shattered in those lyrics. They're not, by any means, as beautiful as "Born to Run" – or maybe they are but they're stripped of their fancy. They are sad instead of hopeful, the end, rather than the beginning, there are no dreams, only memories of that short-lived time down by the river. Ho-hum.

Over the next few posts we will explore rock music as poetry, from Springsteen to Prefab Sprout, from Joni to Graham, from Paul Simon to T.S. Eliot.

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