22 March 2007

Riding the (carrier) wave

This is where I blow my cultural credibility. Ah, well; it has to be done. (And, if you plug on to the end, there's the shadow of a contemporary political point as well.)

Anyone who knows me at all also knows my habit of quoting snatches of popular song lyrics - and especially lyrics from Melanie Safka (or Melanie Safka Schekeryk as she has been for three decades or so now).

I'm regularly asked why I do that ... why popular song, and why in particular Ms Safka?

I'm also regularly asked why I don't carry that same habit over into here?

A colleague asked me that second question yesterday: why do I not do here in The Growlery what I do everywhere else?

Trying to think about it (because I never really have, before) I suggested that maybe it's because I partially have an academic head on, when I'm in here? But he wasn't convinced, reminding me that he had heard me quote liberally from Melanie and Ursula K Le Guin (yes - Le Guin is another of my habits) during a lecture on transfinite systems. And a student, eating at the same table, added that I'd quoted both Safka's Lovin' Baby Girl and Le Guin's Winter's King in that morning's seminar notes, not to mention Catatonia's She's a Millionaire and Suzanne Vega's Marlene on the Wall. So ... that won't do as an explanation, then.

After much thought, I've decided that the real reason is a small and ignoble one. If I am face to face with you, even in a lecture theatre, or if we are in some other one to one relation (email, for instance), then I am willing to be honest and quote popular song lyrics. When I don't know who you are, however (as I do not, in here), I shrink from it. Sad, or what? Humankind cannot bear very much reality[1] of that sort, so ... on to the next thing.

Why popular song, in the first place? Why not Shakespeare, or Graham Swift?

I do believe that popular song is a repository of vital common concerns, expressed in direct form. Yes, yes, I know, much of it (from the beginning of time - look at the songs of the troubadours and trouvères) is agonised romantic love. But look deeper and there's much more than that. Look at protest song, for just one obvious example - The Cutty Wren from the English peasants' revolt of 1382, Alan Grey's heart wrenching 1951 keen The Klan, or Crass's 1982 Falklands war rant How Does It Feel To Be The Mother of a Thousand Dead? Popular song is not poetry, but I see no reason to say that it is less than poetry - just different. It's a valuable form, which only habits of cultural snobbery (in which, alas, I am as guilty as anyone else when I shrink from quoting in here) relegate to second rank.

I'm a word person (can't you just look at me in here and tell?[2]) and lyrics are very often important to me in my choice of listening. Not always, and not exclusively, but certainly they're a big part of it.

And why Melanie Safka lyrics in particular - which it is fashionable to disparage, which I cannot say are the most sophisticated I can find, and of which even their author says "...people are always trying to read deep meanings into my songs. Most of the time they don't have any special meaning at all"?

One part of the answer to that one is that every one of us is attuned to particular sets of communication which reached us at a crucial time in our lives - usually a formative time, often puberty and early adulthood. I was a hippy; of the many voices of that time (Bob Dylan, Donovan, Jefferson Airplane, Joan Baez ... all of them on my shelf and in my head), Melanie Safka was, by chance, the one who sneaked in and set up camp at a moment when the door was open. That simple: she was and is important to me. For somebody else it might be Meatloaf or Madonna - or, to come up to date, Beyoncé Knowles, Justin Timberlake, Katie Melua. (I think perhaps, if I were a teenager today, it might well be Melua for me.)

Another part of the answer, though, and more important, is that I question whether it's possible to write words which "don't have any special meaning".

In general, I buy Roland Barthes' dictum that "the author is dead". We never receive what the author sent: we receive only what we read or hear, and that is the echo in our own mind resonating through our own experience and assumptions. All words are, in a real sense, our own words. I don't suggest that the author's intent has no part in the process - but we never know how much part, and we as readers and listeners are always the final performer. That's why people buy greetings cards and fridge magnets: they know what they want to say, and they search for the card or magnet which enables them to say it. It's also why we read Shakespeare or Swift, look at Michelangelo or Maggi Hambling, listen to Mozart or Melanie: in all cases, hitching a ride on someone else's voice or vision as a carrier wave for our own. It doesn't much matter what that carrier wave is: it does matter that we have one. And popular song is one of the most lucid, uncomplicated carrier waves in the spectrum.

So ... I will try to take myself in hand, my moral courage by the scruff of its neck, and in future quote as much Safka and Le Guin in here as I do elsewhere. After all - if I can't stand up in public and be laughed at for my musical tastes, what hope is there when I am faced with the many more important tests of commitment which our times demand?

I can start with a1971 (I was 19) top 40 hit: The Nickel Song.

Jim Putnam recently drew lessons from the bridge table which I understand, though I know nothing whatsoever about the game of bridge. Bridge, in other words, is his carrier wave on this occasion - though he more often uses quilting or golf.

If Jim had been born at a different time, he would have made a good hippy. A substantial proportion of a whole generation believed, for that short time, in the oneness of human kind, in the necessity and achievability of a better future.

Poor little hairy kids, out on their own
Run to the festivals to show that they are one
They've fallen in love with all humankind...

It was a bubble, of course, and it burst. But a beautiful bubble which, despite everything I've seen since and despite all the derision heaped on it, I still believe was important and of which I am still proud to have been a small soap particle.

Anyroad ... back to The Nickel Song and Jim's lessons from the bridge table. His point is that the Democrats in the US Congress may not be able to do everything that needs doing, but they could and should do more than they are ... or, in different words:

Well I don't know so many things
But I know what's been goin' on
We're only putting in a little
To get rid of a lot that's wrong...

Which is enough from me for one day.

  1. T S Eliot. Four Quartets: "Burnt Norton". London, 1968, Folio Society. (1943)
  2. ("...I’m just a girl / Can’t you just take a look at me and tell...") Janis Joplin, singing R & B Gibb's To Love Somebody [on the Kozmic Blues album], 1969, Columbia Records.
  3. Melane Safka. The Good Book. New York, 1970, Buddha Records.
  4. Melanie Safka. The Nickel Song. New York, 1970, Buddha Records.

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