Thursday, May 07, 2009

Memories Can't Wait: Sadness

(If you're wondering what this is all about, click here.)

This week's topic: Sadness

'Interlude' - Morrissey & Siouxsie (Skif)

It’s got such a peaceful gust this song, like the orchestral parts are being recorded somewhere like rural Provence, in a dell’s sunken cleft, whilst the two vocalists wander amongst the wildflowers further up the bank. It’s a terrific vocal combo too, with Morrissey’s mournful reel played against Siouxsie Sioux’s virtually emotionless grit. Apparently they didn’t really get on that well when recording this but, thankfully, it has no effect on the subtle romantic drama of the piece.

All that said, the best bit of it is when Moz and Siouxs pack up their vox and allow a two-minute coda to meander like a glinting stream; a stream viewed through a number of pubescent oaks occasionally caught in a tickling draught.

You might be picking up from my effusing that I rather like this piece. I’ve had rather a lot of on and off with Morrissey over the years. 1994’s Vauxhall and I remains his masterpiece for me, and I’m much fonder of its heftier follow-up Southpaw Grammar (1995) than most seem to be. Yet I never got round to buying 1997’s Maladjusted, nor 2006’s Ringleader of the Tormentors despite buying the in-between effort You Are The Quarry (2004). I’m rather fond of his latest single 'I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris' so I guess I’m back on board in 2009. However give me the option of one Morrissey solo song to take to a desert island with me and it’d be his duet version of 'Interlude'.

This seems particularly appropriate as I imagine I’d be quite despondent if I found myself on a desert island with nothing but a couple of records and a coconut for company, and 'Interlude' has, however much I like it, become synonymous with my woe, albeit hitherto my romantic woe, specifically. Whenever I’ve been dumped or felt rejected, it is this tune I’ve stuck in my ears on a long loop, sometimes for an hour or more of ceiling-staring and heavy-sighing.

I should probably clarify that I’ve not been dumped that much; I’ve not been out with enough women for that. However none of the couplings of which I’ve been half have ended through any decision-making on my part. Well, I finished my long, long first relationship on several capricious and arrogant occasions, mostly because I felt my potentially gad-about university days were passing me by in a blur of masochistic monogamy, but that was never the actual end of it. It was always just a break. Until that proper point of no return, of course, which rather knocked me for six.

All the dramatic farewells, got-nowheres and awkward situations that followed were celebrated the same way, by digging out the Moz records, and considering a return to writing dreadfully earnest poetry. I was a teenage cliché. Sadly I was a teenage cliché up to about the age of 25.

However, by the time of my last dumping, I’d become a little more used to it, and was able to recover a little quicker but, even so, that first night alone again had its 'Interlude'. Much as I enjoy it, I hope I never have to hear it ever again, not more than once in a row anyway.

'London, Can You Wait?' - Gene (drmigs)

I was brought up to take things on the chin, and walk away; or to turn the other cheek. A laudable ambition, but it does leave you with baggage. Emotional baggage. And if you've no one to talk to, it kind of bottles up. I dealt with it physically by playing ridiculous amounts of sport. However, that never wholly cleared the mind.
Inevitably, thoughts and insecurities were dwelt upon.

These days I have one of these wonderful things called a wife, onto whom I can unburden my cerebral frustrations and insecurities. However, back in the day I didn't have a wife. Sometimes I had a girlfriend, sometimes I didn't, and therein lay the problem. How to deal with the heady combination of late-teen/early-twenties insecurities, social inarticulacy, the baffling opening salvos of early courtship and the pain of splitting up.

I didn't woo by being a knight in shining armour, the alpha male, and I didn't break up with arguments. I wooed by falling into conversation at parties, and I broke up with reason. Feel free to call me passionless, but that wouldn't be fair. I had passion, but I either didn't have the confidence to communicate it, or I felt it disrespectful to resolve something with an emotional outburst. I saved that for an implosion later. I saved that for when I'd go to my room and listen to To See The Lights by Gene. For want of a better metaphor, I saved it for the album that I emotionally self-harmed to.

Flat on my back, on the bed, I'd put the CD in the stereo, and press play. Fourteen seconds into the first track 'Be My Light, Be My Guide' a subtle down-shift in tempo sets the mood, and so the ritual began. I immersed myself in all that was racing through my mind. Dissecting those many occasions when the circumstances had been right, the person had been right, but I couldn't say what I wanted to say. I'd frozen, caught between cowardice and respect, and I'd notched up a little more emotional baggage.

The first three songs of the album would pass by in a blur of self-analysis, and then 'Haunted By You' and 'I Can't Decide If She Really Loves Me' would test out the intensity of my introspection. If this was just another day, and another step on the road of growing up, then I could walk away. However, if it was a biggy, then these two tracks would lead me down the maudlin path. I'd miss 'To See The Lights' in self pity, wallow in 'I Can't Help Myself', and 'A Car That Sped' would prepare me for the darkness that I'd go into during 'For the Dead'.

By the time I'd got to 'For the Dead', it's fair to say I'd be feeling pretty low and hollow. Inevitably, I couldn't stop myself from reliving those dark thoughts, the darkest thoughts of all. When I was younger, I missed a couple of years of school with a chronic illness. Day upon day lying there, waiting to get better while life went on around me. And for a while, day upon day wondering if it would be better to not wait any more. To put an end to the pain. I came to a position where I could face the pain of confronting my mortality, damn it, I'd hurt every day for as long as I could remember, but I couldn't inflict the pain on others. I couldn't take the selfish route when there were so many people selflessly looking after me, loving me. So I just lay there, hypothesising the best way to confront mortality.

I reconciled that the only way to do it efficiently was to get a third person to do it; you might bottle it and botch it on your own. But what would that do to the third party? I found out later in life when I met a lovely chap whom I shall call Bob. He was great, he was enthusiastic and open in opinion, but seemed to have no emotional depth. However, he cracked in a conversation around a campfire that was too heavy on nihilistic philosophical ruminations. He simply splurted out "You've never killed someone!" and broke down. It turns out he'd run through a door at school in his early teens. In a tragic twist of fate, the door knocked over another pupil, and the blow to the head killed them. Bob clearly dealt with this pain by not visiting it, and so only interacted with others superficially. All these things went round my head during 'For The Dead', and the following track 'Sleep Well Tonight'.

'How Much For Love' would drag me back to the subject in question: my need to love and be loved, and the difficulties I was going through to satisfy this need. And then it would come, the track that floored me. 'London, Can You Wait?', the radio session. There is no messing about at the start of this song, just the guitar, a simple melody and the chilling vocals. I'd hear "My kith and kin...", and then lose the next few lyrics of the song, just lost in my mental fog, and the comforting balance of the song. Whisked away by the melody, I'd feel cold and still. And then I'd be caught by "How long can you wait / How long / I was having the time of my life..."; and I'd suddenly feel helpless. Finally, I'd just lie and reflect, confused and still, to "I'm lost again / I'm lost again / I am lost again / Oh I'm lost again / I'm lost again / I am lost again". As the song tied itself up without any fuss, just a simple conclusion of the melody, I'd turn the CD off and just lie there numb. And lie there until I fell asleep, or I or someone else decided it was time to get a grip.

It's been odd listening to this album again, I haven't listened to it for years. It's strange to remind myself of those feelings again, without having anything to invest in the songs. I can retrospectively feel the sadness, but at the same time they only feel as though they were distant emotions; I have someone to love now, and someone who loves me. I don't need or want this anymore. I don't know if I'll listen to the album again for a good while either - it's been cathartic to go back to it, but also a little odd.

'How I Made My Millions' - Radiohead (Ian)

An old Radiohead B-side, this is a home demo Thom Yorke brought to the band that they just released as-is. It’s Thom at the piano, and it is unutterably sad. Beginning with "I was stronger / I was better" and ending with the repeated refrain "Let it fall", it is mostly just the beautifully simple and cyclical piano refrain. Thom murmurs, he almost wails, he slips and he slurs and he’s a little bit drunk.

Because the saddest thing about this gorgeous little tune, a song that’s already plenty sad (and yet not depressing – more bittersweet), is that faintly in the background you can hear Thom’s partner putting the shopping away (or doing the dishes, I’ve heard both theories – something domestic in any case). I don’t imagine for a second that the song was recorded in a moment of domestic strife, it doesn’t sound like that. But the idea that something so bereft and so aching can be created a room away from someone going about the most mundane of tasks – there’s something beautiful about that, yes, but also something very melancholy. And yet, at the same time, it’s fundamental to why we love sad songs, why we need them:

"Talking to a friend a while ago, he expressed surprise when I said that I found, in sad music, not tears and catharsis, but an odd sort of strength, or even cheer. 'But listen to Miles Davis playing Concierto de Aranjuez', he said; 'how can you not feel the bleakness, the absolute despair in that record?' But what stops it
short of being absolute despair is precisely the fact that it is a record. It’s not simply the bleak fact of despair, but a representation of despair; hence proof that something can be done with sadness. This kind of sublimation is not a theodicy, at least not in the traditional sense. The brute fact of suffering is not justified by the brute fact of redemption, rather, redemption, or the closest we can get to it, comes through the fact that suffering can be interpreted, that the fact that we suffer never determines what we then do with that suffering.
(from Voyou Désœuvré)

'Death Of A Salesman' - Low (Ben)

With Ian and I both contributing this week, it was pretty much inevitable that Low would get a mention. After all, their back catalogue weighs far heavier with sadness than most.

Take 'Laser Beam' from Things We Lost In The Fire, for instance - at once impossibly beautiful and heartbreakingly sad. Or 'Pretty People', which kicked off their last album Drums And Guns with sinister wheezing drones and the cheery message "All the soldiers / They're all gonna die / And all the little babies / They're all gonna die".

But, for this incorrigible nostalgic (if I haven't already described myself as such in a previous installment of this feature, then I'd be very surprised) there's only really one track that I could have picked: 'Death Of A Salesman'.

The song appears on The Great Destroyer, the album sandwiched between Things We Lost In The Fire and Drums And Guns which is uncharacteristic in being both loud and, in places, almost (almost, but not quite) strident. 'Death Of A Salesman' is rather different, though: just Alan Sparhawk, an acoustic guitar and a short, brilliant lament for lost youth.

It begins: "So I took my guitar / And I threw down some chords / And some words I could sing / Without shame". "Threw down" and "without shame" are key phrases: there's no self-consciousness, no awkwardness about this music-making - just openness and, behind that, sincerity and belief.

But our hero's composition meets with blank incomprehension, as others try to impress upon him the shamefulness and futility of engaging in creative pursuits: "And I soon had a song / I played it around / For some friends / But they all said the same / They said 'Music's for fools / You should go back to school / The future is prisons and math'". Sparhawk has the ears of anyone who's ever suffered the indignity of having their ambitions frustrated or ridiculed.

The character in the song then describes his own capitulation and weary acceptance of his "friends"' logic: "So I did what they said / Now my children are fed / Cause they pay me to do what I'm asked". The compromising and sacrificing of ideals in the face of grim reality, he implies, is inevitable - and the 31-year-old me nods along in silent agreement.

Anger is the result - an anger which cannot be entirely repressed or sublimated, glimpsed in the sneering hiss of "asked" but described as erupting in symbolic violence: "I forgot all my songs / The words now are wrong / And I burned my guitar in a rage".

But then - in much the same way that the final couplet of a sonnet often radically qualifies, undercuts or counteracts the preceding 12 lines - the closing lines strike an unexpectedly comforting chord which jars against the depressing note sounded by the rest of the lyrics: "But the fire came to rest / In your white velvet breast / So somehow I just know that it's safe". We may lose our own innocence, forced by necessity to abandon youthful hopes and dreams which we are then only able to look back on wistfully - but there's some consolation that such innocence, such hopes and dreams, live on in others.

Of course, there's an irony in Sparhawk singing about having burned his guitar while playing guitar that might lead you to suspect the song's just a clever whimsy. But it's too poignant for that, not least because barely a few months after I saw Low perform at the Wolverhampton Wulfrun Hall in February 2005 - a gig at which 'Death Of A Salesman' was the luminous highlight - Sparhawk suffered a nervous breakdown. With the benefit of hindsight, the song's lyrics do read like the thoughts of a man whose self-identity and self-belief were precariously brittle. Thankfully he recovered and went back to throwing down chords and words - thus keeping the fire alive.

* * * * *

Thanks to Skif, drmigs and Ian for their contributions this week.

The final subject (for this run of Memories Can't Wait, at least) is home, in a fortnight's time.


Blogger swisslet said...

I can't believe I missed this one: Interlude is one of my very favourite Morrissey songs (and I completely agree that Vauxhall is his masterpiece and that Southpaw is woefully underated too). And as for that Gene album. Ah! I love that album. I remember reading the NME review of it, and becoming cross because it was such a lazy, "oh they sound like the smiths" review. To be fair, at the time, they did sound like the smiths, but they grew, and by the time they packed it in with "Libertine", they were very much their own beautiful thing.

So, great choices lads. Magnificent songs to miserable to.


8:37 pm  

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