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Remarks for Hovering at the Edge (IICSI Guelph Colloquium, 13 September 2018)
For Hovering at the Edge: Words, Music, Sound, and Song
IICSI colloquium at Guelph, 13 September 2018
(Panel with Sara Villa, Paul Watkins, Rob Wallace)
I want to start by poaching a phrase from the title of Fred Moten’s hot-off-the-Duke-University-Press trilogy, which he admits to purloining from Christopher Winks’s translation of an interview of Antillean poet Édouard Glissant by the filmmaker Manthia Diawara. Here it is: “Consent not to be a single being” (xvi). The implicit network of voices caught up in that performative translation suggests, already, the layered irresolution, the refusal and the excess that Moten names, following on a reading of C. L. R. James, the “not-in-between.” For a good twenty-five years now, I have attempted fairly quietly to practice a plural and dislocated cultural pedagogy, both critical and (co)creative, that hovers in the sometimes appropriative, sometimes disjunctive interstices of the Eurological, the Afrological and the Indigenous. I lay claim to no particular belonging, although my appearance and heritage tend to do that for me, materially and obviously. My writing such as it is has striven, sometimes against its own tendencies and sometimes by embracing them, to inhabit and to enliven—and to be enlivened by—those unstable and conflicted contingencies, those dissolving and partial places where productive intersections can and do happen. “Join me down here in nowhere,” Claudia Rankine calls out in Citizen: An American Lyric. I feel like I have tried, in my teaching and in my writing, to answer (and to answer to) that fraught, rich, poetic invitation.
The hover I often find myself attempting to describe occurs—perhaps as a temporary suture, perhaps as an undoing, as a re-opened wound—in the liquid, motile collision of words and music that happens both in and as song, particularly improvised song. It’s the attenuation, the extemporal hysteresis, in one sense, that tugs lyrics toward the lyric. Drawing on Amiri Baraka’s concept of “musicked speech,” Moten begins to map in C. L. R. James’s sentences a “phrasal disruption” that he names lyric, a noisy “poetry” interrupting (“[n]ot by opposition; by augmentation”) James’s prose—inflecting Moten’s own parenthetical and iterative style, as well as my imitation here—and an aurality that “remains to be seen and heard so to speak, and in excess of the sentence because it breaks up meaning’s conditions of production,” serving “to disrupt and trouble meaning toward content” (3). At the same time, music asserts itself through and against the verbal “not only as a mode of organization but, more fundamentally, as phonic substance, phonic materiality irreducible to any interpretation but antithetical to any assertion of the absence of content” (31). Moten comes to offer his apologies for such theoretically and poetically dense passages as the ones I have just quoted: “I’m sorry if this is all a blur. I’m so used to my own astigmatism that maybe I can’t even talk to anybody anymore. To make matters worse, I’ve never been able to keep my glasses clean” (261). Still, he understands his own verbose blur (as the title of his book suggests) as constitutive and crucial, as inhering in the give-and-take word-music of song itself. This astigmatism, this arrhythmia, is the stuff of the improvisatory; Moten offers, as exemplary, the unsettled musicking of Charles Mingus: “He would protect the pulse, like any good bass player, while freeing himself from it,” and, I want to add, by singing, shouting, moaning, ululating, vocalizing as he plays (103). Protection, however, also articulates itself against the risk of hurt, in Moten’s terms, as both complement and antagonist, as augmentation and opposition. Moten thematizes this correspondent hurt in the transcribed/described “scream” of Frederick Douglass’s Aunt Hester; Michel Leiris evokes the “cri,” which he hears in “les sons râpeux . . . que les jazzmen aiment àtirer de leurs instruments àvents . . .qu’ils savent aussi faire gémir, grognier, se plaindre ou ricaner sur toutes sortes de tons” [the raspy sounds. . . that jazzmen like to shoot from their wind instruments. . that they also know how to moan, grunt, complain or snicker on all kinds of tones] (37). This pained and celebratory tonality—at once, for Leiris, derisive and sanguine—offers a moment of suture, of unruly translation, between what he calls paroleand chant, speech and song: “Peut-être est-ce quand les mots, au lieu d’être en position servile de traducteurs, deviennent générateurs d’idées qu’on passé de la parole au chant? S’ils se font chant, n’est-ce pas lorsque, cessant d’obéir seulement aux injonctions du dictionnaire, ils valent par ce que leur forme et point seulement leur sens official suggèrent (en quelque sorte ‘génèrent’)?” [Perhaps it is when the words, instead of being in a servile position of translators, become generators of ideas that we pass from the word to the song? If they make themselves sing, is it not when, ceasing to obey only the injunctions of the dictionary, they are worth what their form and point only their official sense suggest (somehow ‘generate’)?] (112). In some sense like me, Leiris comes to this music as an attentive outsider, hoping by staging, as audition, a close proximity to its song also to catch at (that is, to translate otherwise) some of its vitality, its deep cry. Moten, by contrast, necessarily resists such “an absolute nearness [to black vitality], an absolute proximity, which a certain invocation of suture might approach, but with great imprecision. . . . There’s no remembering, no healing. There is, rather, a perpetual cutting, a constancy of expansive and enfolding rupture and wound, a rewind that tends to exhaust the metaphysics upon which the idea of redress is grounded” (ix). “Jazz,” as he puts it, “does not disappear the problem,” or dress its wound, or offer healing sesames: jazz “isthe problem and will not disappear. It is, moreover, the problem’s diffusion, which is to say that what it thereby brings into relief is the very idea of the problem” (xii, emphasis in original). While attempting to describe my own practice of study, which I understand as the interrogation and elaboration of a certain conceptual arrhythmia, I have perhaps relied overmuch on quoting Moten in these few minutes, but I am also mindful that the work of reading, with as much acuity as I can muster, is also to develop a tenuous but palpable resonance, a hapsis, a pushback and a to-and-fro with what I hear presently in Moten’s sentences. I’m going to move on to try to give a more specific example of this practice of reading and listening, of listening as reading, but before that I want to look only once more to the early pages of Moten’s book, where he delineates what he calls “black study” as the stuff of discrepant song, as audible hurt and as a “lyricism of the surplus”:
This is why, as Wadada Leo Smith has said, it hurts to play this music. The music is riotous solemnity, a terrible beauty. It hurts so much that we have to celebrate. That we have to celebrate is what hurts so much. Exhaustive celebration of and in and through our suffering, which is neither distant nor sutured, is black study. (xiii)
My own practice of study cannot unproblematically or unchallenged suture itself to that terrible beauty or find even vestigially proximity to Moten’s “we.” Nevertheless, in the fraught translation between word and sound that manifests itself in improvised song, I do find myself, following Brent Hayes Edwards and, of all people, Raymond Williams, “hovering ‘at the very edge of semantic availability’” (16) trying to explain the blur.
Part Deux. Deuxième Partie, I Should Say.
I only have a couple of minutes, so I want to give a brief example of the creative blur, the hover I’ve been trying to describe in my own creative-critical practice by ventriloquizing some of Fred Moten’s recent work. I want to begin to listen carefully to Darius Jones’s and Emilie Lesbros’s Le Bébé de Brigitte, which is both an homage to and an extension of Brigitte Fontaine’s 1969 collaboration with Areski Belkacem and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Comme à la Radio. I want to take up two related tropes to understand how song and the improvisatory intersect in this work: the suture and, borrowing the title of the one wordless track on Darius Jones’s 2015 recording, the “universal translator.” Linking the Jones-Lesbros collaboration directly to the Brigitte Fontaine recording is from the get-go a bit misleading and an instance of mistranslation or of meaning lost in translation. If you dig a little (through the internet, for instance), you’ll discover that the “Brigitte” in Darius Jones’s title is not Fontaine (though named for her) but a maternal figure in his evolving personal cosmology (articulated in his unfolding series of “Man’ish Boy” recordings); unless you find your way to such notes, however, who Brigitte is will remain hermetic and likely miscued for listeners. The promise of universal translatability offers itself through Google or in Star Trekand Hitchhiker’s Guideutopianism (and has something to do with an Afro-Futurism here, though I have no room to engage or unpack it), but rather than transparency, the universality – the Benjaminian Reine Sprache– that Jones describes musically is an effect of contingent opacity, of difference and uncertainty, of the slipped suture: “In the process of creating this music, we often fell into moments of miscommunication because of differences in culture and language. I think this created a sense of mystery, and forced all of us to listen more deeply to each other’s nuances and subtleties, because we didn’t always have words to fall back on.” Words, despite what Jones appears to claim here, are not even a fallback for communicative or diegetic clarity, and even when they’re unsung, their tug and blur remain in play in the performance, the articulation, of these songs. Briefly put, the cosmology – the universality of an imagined universal translator – never closes or coheres, not even for its originator; instead it revises, remakes, re-writes itself, an extemporaneous diegesis. Which means, for me, that in the stitching, the verbal-acoustic suturing that happens when we sing, the lyric “problem” that Fred Moten describes tends to come into play, maybe even necessarily. Here are a few snippets from the (what I take to be) largely improvised lyrics by Brigitte Fontaine for “Comme à la Radio,” the eponymous opening track for her collaborative album:
Ce n’ sera rien
Rien que de la musique
Ce n’ sera rien
Rien que des mots
Comme à la radio
Tout juste un peu de bruit
Pour combler le silence
As she moves through the song, we realize that with her increasing tenacity what we’re hearing both is and is not audible “like” a song “on the radio.” Her words, her noise, fills in silences, but even with what we might mistake for self-deprecation (“nothing but words,” “nothing but music”), it inclines itself, by both suturing and cutting into itself and its musical accompaniment, to the “nowhere” that Claudia Rankine says she inhabits, an excessive and unruly soundspace that both fills semantic gaps and refuses to fill us in. Emilie Lesbros’s singing on, for example, “Chanteuse in Blue,” also darts in and out of any semantic purview (one critic, while asserting that her texts are mostly “suitably poetic,” found that these words “veer into the irritating”: I’d call them edgy, working the audio nerves to the edge, the abutment, of sound and sense, of the Eurological and the Afrological, let’s say, with her Aebi-Birkin-esque accent):
hah, wah, a-a-a-a-a, uegh
“Baby, let me tell you something.”
“Chanteuse in blue . . .”
“He said, ‘What? What are you talking about, sweetheart?’”
“I said, ‘I am suffering from the difference that people
think we have.’”
What’s both thematized and enacted here, meta-diegetically and subversively, as translated verbal excess, is precisely and necessarily the irritation of the lyric: the refusal to settle in; instead Lesbros (and Darius Jones’s dialogic saxophone lines, both miming and counterpointing, intensifying and cross-cutting Lesbros’s voice) presents an embrace—a fraying and a knitting up – of the discomfiting, the discrepant, the extramusical, the blur. I will have exceeded my time. My time’s more than up.
Texts Quoted or Name-checked (in reverse alphabetical order)
Fred Moten. Black and Blur. First volume of consent not to be
a single being. Duke UP, 2017.
Michel Leiris. À Cor et à Cri. Gallimard,1988.
Brent Hayes Edwards. Epistrophies: Jazz and the Literary
Imagination. Harvard UP, 2017.
Hearing John K. Samson’s "Highway One West"
We have been reading John K. Samson’s Lyrics and Poems 1997-2012 in one of my current undergraduate classes. One of things I want to interrogate critically about this book is the nature of that “and” in its title: what can these texts tell us, as close readers and as attentive listeners, about the relationship between lyrics and lyric, between song and poem? I’m looking to describe a certain nascent melopoeia in John K. Samson’s conception of how words work, in his conception of the cultural work of both singing and saying, of performing. What, he seems to be asking in most of these pieces (repurposing a famous provocation from Rainer Maria Rilke), what can singers and singing be for in a destitute time such as ours?
I say nascent because, as you thumb through the book, you’ll see that most of the lyrics are printed as if they are prose, like brief essays or prose-poems. Spatially – at least, on the page – this visual arrangement in discrete typographical blocks echoes the cover design (which gestures, as well, at the cover for his 2012 album Provincial and at the graphic design of his webpage), a grid page from an old ledger, sections of which have been filled in with brown and blue hashmarks in pen. The effect, I think, is to gesture at an imaginary map of a parceled rural landscape, the Latin squares of prairie agricultural space. Hand-drawn lines – lines of ink but also lines of poetry – take on topographical resonances. These are songs preoccupied with articulating a human subject in space, with what amounts to placing oneself. In Canada, questions of who I am often become, following a lead from Northrop Frye, questions of where I am and where here is. But rather than fall back on mythopoeic cultural nationalisms – generalizing an Anglo-Canadian psyche as Frye might by locating and defining its (or our) territorial idiom – Samson queries that relationship, and tends to inhabit its inadequacies, and to create a pathos from and within that shortfall. In Vertical Man / Horizontal World, Laurie Ricou reframes the prairie psyche as nascent rather than determinate (and please pardon the gender bias here, which I think is symptomatic of the time at which Ricou’s study was published): “the landscape, and man’s relation to it, is the concrete situation with which the prairie artist initiates his re-creation of the human experience.” Ricou understands this particular landscape as initiating re-creation, as aesthetic disturbance, not as affirming a particular regional identity. The persona, the speaking or singing subject, of a Samson song is usually “left or leaving,” remaindered or else in the process of departure, “undefined” (as the lyric to “Left or Leaving” puts it), but always seeking a positional relation, for better or for worse, with a sense of home, tracking the “lines that you’re relying on to lead you home.” Those lines are also literally nascent, at least in their print form; reading the prose, you can hear metre and rhyme begin to realize themselves, as if lines were gently beginning to extricate themselves, audibly, from an undifferentiated (undefined?) verbal flow, a lineated poem emerging – although not quite emerged – from the prose. It’s not so much that the prose-poem aspires to the condition of song as it is that we experience a sort of hiatus, a space of what the lyrics for “Left and Leaving” might call “waiting,” between conception and realization, between text and song: a betweenity Samson thematizes as “and,” as an unclosed ampersand.
The printed lyrics to “Highway One West” realize this betweenity both typographically and compositionally. The poem begins and ends with nine single-word lines. (The exception is the first line, which adds an extra word, tellingly the first word of the poem, another “And . . . .”) Framed by these narrow plummets, between them, are five lines of what look like prose – although they’re not prosaic in any sense, but tend toward metaphorical density:
roll over the gravel shoulder, thump into the ditch,
engine cut, battery dying, the station metastasizing
tumours of evangelists and ads for vinyl siding,
the city some cheap EQ with the mids pushed up
in the one long note of wheat.
The 9 + 5 + 9 line-structure mimics a kind of overlapped sonnet. (“(manifest)” and “(past due)” from Reconstruction Site are both sonnets, in fact.) More than this ghostly resonance with literary form, however, the spatial disposition of the lines offers a visual analogue to the physiography in which the subject finds himself immersed. If you turn the page sideways, you can see the high-rise buildings of Winnipeg – or at least of “the city” – emerging in the centre of a flat prairie, the horizon created by a line of upended words. “Here,” the last word of the poem, is produced as a mimesis of distant surveillance, too far away to walk back to. The where of the poem is too far, moreover, from everywhere else; it is an elsewhere, alienated and alienating.
Notably, the song begins in performance with the looping repetition of the last segment (“Too far to walk . . .”), accompanied by a heavy, slow down-strum on the electric guitar, the repetition reinforcing the sense of resigned exhaustion, that “here” might be both everywhere and nowhere. The sounds coming over the car radio – not music but distant voices, a verbal garbage offering false promises of commercial or spiritual satisfaction – metastasizes into diseased noise, rough static. Sound technologies – both for recording and reproduction – offer another metaphorical (as opposed to metastasized) resonance to the geographical descriptors; that urban bump in the middle of the landscape mimics a graphic equalizer with the midrange sliders pushed up. The song gestures, in part, at the electronics used to produce it, and to reproduce it. But if, both visually and sonically, the lyrics and the recorded performance gesture at alienation and at loss, the text also frames and even recovers a degree of expressive potential – finds its voice – from within those horizontal margins, pulled over onto the shoulder of Highway One West, the Trans Canada. The page layout also mimics, coincidentally perhaps, a photograph of John K. Samson, used by The Globe and Mail, that looks like it was taken somewhere out on Highway One.
(I don’t know whom to credit for this photo.) The singer’s image, particularly with his back turned to the lens, echoes the middle section of the poem, while the highway and prairie skyline are picked up by the one-word horizontals. (Again, the page has to be turned sideways to see the mirroring.) What this accidental similarity suggests, for me, is a version of Ricou’s vertical man / horizontal world. The song itself has only a vestigial subjective presence: there is no “I” among the words, which are primarily objective and attenuated. But the voice, the speaking subject here, presents itself, ghosts itself into the song, as a hiatus, an opening in the mids and in the midst of this landscape. The singer pauses on the shoulder, at the left-hand margin of the road and of the page, to look out and, especially, to listen. The song models, I want to suggest, a late or “weak” practice of attention, an opening of the self to audibility – both heard and hearing, left and leaving – that positions the subject as initiating its own recreation, cobbling itself together from interpellative fragments that he tries to hear, see and identify with as maybe, elsewise, his own.
Reading Patti Smith
[This essay, focusing on Patti Smith’s early songs, emerges from teaching and writing I’m doing around an undergraduate course on the poetics of song lyrics and pop culture studies.]
Patti Smith Complete 1975-2006 is more than an anthology of lyrics, and it’s also hardly complete. Patti Smith’s writing – along with her music and photography – is marked and informed by an essential contrariety, by a conflictedness suggested ironically in the book’s blandly generic title, which gestures, I’d say, toward an admixture of excess and fragmentation, of spontaneous overflow and fraught insufficiency that drives her thinking around the making of poems and songs and around her performance style. She frames this set of contradictions, her sense of voice and of self as embodied contradictions, in the snippets of memoir and reflection scattered throughout the book; commenting on the lyrics for “Birdland,” a track for Horses spontaneously and collectively realized by her and her band in the recording studio, she says that the “concept of improvisation” – and it’s worth nothing that she says concept, rather than practice – “has long repelled and excited me, for it contains the possibilities of humiliation and illumination,” that is, both of the degrading and the vatic. “Sha da do wop da shaman do way sha da do wop da shaman do way,” she sings at the close of her extemporaneous soliloquy; song, as contingent melody, emerges (as in “Land”) off-and-on in the piece from passages of loosely narrative spoken word; the final gently looping chorus blurs doo-wop girl-group nonsense syllables into a vestigial chant of the word “shaman,” and it’s as a kind of nascent and androgynous rock’n’roll shaman that Smith wants here, at the outset of her singing career, to position herself. In a New York Times review of her 1978 collection Babel, a precursor to the “complete” collection we’re now reading in our course on song lyrics and popular culture, Jonathan Cott nicely encapsulates the contradictions that inhere in Smith’s stagy shamanism as he traces out the complexities of her performance persona, of her onstage self-fashioning:
Patti Smith has taken this magic amalgam and manifested it in what she calls “3 chord rock merged with the power of the word,” claiming that rock-and-roll is “the highest and most universal form of expression since the lost tongue (time: pre-Babel).” . . . [B]y adopting a paradoxical theatrical stance – one that confuses male and female roles and that combines the acoustic magic of Rimbaud and the Ronettes – Patti Smith has been able to develop, explore and create a certain shamanistic presence that has eluded many aspiring rock-and-roll seers and heroes.
Counterpointing bits of scripture with caustic fragments of French symbolist poetry, her performative “magic” emerges as an uneasy blend of what she calls – ventriloquizing Jean Genet’s poem“Le Condamné à mort” on the back cover of her 1979 album Wave – a doubling of menace into prayer, of prayer as menace. (In the pages of her Complete, the crux of the line – “Use menace, use prayer.” – becomes an epigraph to the section reproducing the lyrics for Easter .)
The infamous first line of “Gloria” – the first track and the first single from her first album, Horses – combines the liturgical and the blasphemous along this same trajectory: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.” As an opening gambit, her declaration doesn’t simply articulate what sounds like a resiliently agnostic, existential individualism, but also voices an entitlement – hers, “mine” – to her own deliberate marginality. Her rock-and-roll “magic,” understood as a gestural negation, isn’t so much about belief and shared redemption as it is about disturbance, about a faith – a belief both in and as resistance – that wants uncompromisingly to test its limits and to refuse any vestiges of comfort or assurance. While never quite rejecting Christian iconology and aesthetics (especially the ritual of Roman Catholicism, as the tone poem “Wave,” for example, makes abundantly clear, as well as a very recent photograph of her meeting Pope Francis) Patti Smith describes her Jesus, in the wake of viewing Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film The Gospel According to St. Matthew, as a “revolutionary figure”: “I began to see him in another light – a teacher, a fighter, a guerrilla” (96). Her Easter is closer to an Easter uprising, a rebirth in turmoil that implicates her in an uncompromised, if not violent, self-remaking. As she appropriates and repurposes the glorified masculine desire that informs Van Morrison’s (as one of Them) original 1963 single “Gloria” (“And oh, she looks so good. Oh she looks so fine / And I got this crazy feeling that I’m gonna make her mine”), the subject position that defines itself in a tirade of possessives (“And I’ve got to tell the world that I made her mine made her mine / Made her mine made her mine made her mine made her mine”) degenerates into a repetitive chant that pulverizes poeisis, making, and diegesis, telling, into thudding particulate phonemes: her voice, the “I” that sings and by singing both hails and possesses its feminine other, becomes drumming, becomes unclosed, brutal and primeval rhythm, a beating. Liturgical responsorial from the Latin mass – gloria in excelsis deo– is both secularized into an erotic object and pulled apart, as she intones each letter of Gloria’s name, into the molecular fragments. The song at once catalyzes into insistent, thetic syllables and disintegrates into undifferentiated verbal noise: pronouncing and dismantling a beloved name that, through the poetic agency of the lyric itself, becomes simultaneously both mine and not-mine, supplement and other.
This double move is, I think, characteristic of many of Patti Smith’s lyrics, which often assert a confidently singular subject while gesturing to the iterative, collaborative and unsettled character of that voice, of her voice. The sexual ambiguity of “Gloria,” for example, as Patti Smith’s lyrics overtake and then fall into a cover-version, a repetition with difference, of Van Morrison’s original (sung, as the lyrics claim, to “twenty thousand girls” at an imaginary stadium concert), disturbs any clear sense of the erotic narrative in the song: Is this a woman ventriloquizing heterosexual desire? Does the song become a queer paean to same-sex desire? The indeterminate androgyny of Patti Smith’s stage persona unknits any normalizing of the dynamics between man and woman, suitor and ingénue. “Because the Night” (from Easter, two or three years later) thematizes desire as belonging, assembling want and succor into an amalgam of contrarieties that becomes more a testament to faith than its deconstruction: “Because the night belongs to lovers / Because the night belongs to us.” Notably, that belonging is shared, ours instead of mine. Smith describes herself as reluctant to listen to a demo cassette of an early version of the song, supplied through producer/engineer Jimmy Iovine from its composer, Bruce Springsteen. Taken by what she describes as its “anthemic quality,” she finishes the lyrics and “somewhat begrudgingly” presents it to her band to record (100). The resulting hit song, she says, is a “testament to Jimmy Iovine’s vision and the co-writer’s New Jersey heritage,” which is also close to her own. As with “Gloria,” what emerges on record isn’t so much a cover or a version of someone else’s song as much as it is a collaborative mix of voices and articulations. For instance, one line that I take to be closer to Smith’s idiom than Springsteen’s (though who can tell or separate them out?) offers in an archly poetic inversion a strong disavowal of the imperious first-person singular: “Have I doubt when I’m alone.” While such a declaration might easily be taken as an avocation of conquest (and assertions in the lyric about “the way I feel under your command” would likely only reinforce such a reading), it seems to me that what we also hear – given the ambiguity and even absence of gender markers for example – is an unsettled and androgynous collaboration, an affirmation that belonging consists in shared desires rather than in their satisfaction through erotic subjugation. When the song asks us to feel and to heal through touch, to “touch me now” in its performative moment, subject and object are inverted in the imperative form, as “I” becomes “me.” Demand and uncertainty produce a temporary hiatus, an almost: contact suspended in the looping repetitions of the refrain. For me, as a listener, this persistence of desire sounds itself in the rhythmic phase-shift of the chorus; because of where it’s placed metrically, “becáuse” becomes “bécause”, and the song gently but persistently jostles against its own formal limits.
Smith’s songs, though, are hardly ever so gentle. (There is nothing, nothing gentle about “Rock n Roll N****r,” an in-your-face provocation that offers a sort of blasphemous flipside to “Because the Night.” [The actual b-side on the 45 was “God Speed.”] I can’t bring myself to type the word without self-censoring: to me, it’s unredeemable and ugly, a verbal violence out of which Smith draws an insurmountable and irresolute alterity, a brutal vocal enactment of Rimbaud’s grammatically fraught claim that “Je est un autre.” There is a good discussion of much of the background to Smith’s reappropriation of the term n****r here.)
The sequence “Land” (also on Horses) begins with a spoken-word piece “Horses” that builds from rubato free-form narrative to four-on-the-floor incantatory, blistering rock. “Horses” sketches a tale of Johnny and his mirror-image, a nameless boy, who confront each other in an unspecified hallway. This doubling is also echoed, literalized, in the restrained overdubbing of another vocal track by Smith, out-of-synch with the lead, her words softly clashing and crashing into each other, as her delivery becomes more emphatic. As the boy approaches, “a rhythm was generating” the song tells us. Johnny is penetrated by the boy as he’s pushed against a locker. (Is this a high school hallway?) The boy disappears, but Johnny starts crashing his own head against the locker, a violence that seems to produce either delusion or vision, concussion or transcendence: either way, the “rhythm” Johnny now sees and hears with increasing intensity in his head, in his ears, sounds like the hoofbeats of fire breathing horses, a pounding verbalized in a chant-like repetition – similar to the chorus in “Gloria” – of a single word: “He saw horses horses horses / horses horses horses horses horses.” The surging drums and guitars behind Smith’s vocal reach a vatic climax – these are versions of the horses of the Christian apocalypse – only to find release into a high velocity version of “Land of a Thousand Dances.”
As with “Gloria,“ the group inhabits in the fierce present tense of their performances a dynamic trajectory through rock’n’roll history. The apocalyptic horses transform, in the first line of Wilson Pickett’s top 40 hit, into one of a set of teenage dance crazes: “Do you know how to pony like bony maroney” Smith wails. Whoever her Johnny might have been, as a representative disaffected teenager, he now appears to find a moment of catharsis and of shared vitality in the song’s hypnotic repetitions: it’s an old song recovered and made new, and it also asserts an insistently driven 4/4 rhythm in which you can’t help getting caught up and pulled to your feet – “Got to lose control and then you take control [. . .] Do you like it like that like it like that.” Spontaneity and self-control collide and smash; what you (not I and not even we, but the vocalist’s externalized other, her audience) . . . what you get to like in this music – liking taken both as likeness, as in the mirrorings and identifications inherent in popular music, and as Eros, as liking what you feel – what you get to like in this music are the conflicted pleasures of its own creative unmaking, its audible gristle.
Hey, That’s Me: Bruce Springsteen and Audience, Part 1
Last week, I started off the current version of an undergraduate course I’m teaching on song lyrics and popular culture with a four-class unit about Bruce Springsteen. I have tried to use his music as an introductory case study in how popular music works, and in what it can do. One of the things we began to think through was the way in which his songs consistently thematize their own reception, representing both textually and musically a set of relationships between singer and audience. Specifically, I tried to read his songs as invitations not only into an erotic reciprocity – to touch and be touched, to feel each other’s presence – but also into a form of shared community: the nascent and loving democracy his “America” promises to be, even if maybe it can never realize that dream. These songs want to communicate, hopefully.
In what’s really the first essay in 31 Songs(2002), Nick Hornby asserts that his all-time favourite song is Springsteen’s “Thunder Road.” That song both addresses and enacts, for him, a durable and enduring moment of love, and it describes the living arc of his own long-term fandom:
I can remember listening to this song and loving it in 1975; I can remember listening to this song and loving it almost as much quite recently, a few months ago.
[. . .] So I’ve loved this song for a quarter of a century now, and I’ve heard it more than anything else, with the possible exception of . . . Who am I kidding? There are no other contenders.
This one song manages, whenever he hears it, to speak to him, for him and about him. I have to say, too, that I know exactly the feeling and exactly the identification that Nick Hornby maps out here, exactly what it is that “Thunder Road,” even despite itself sometimes, makes happen for listeners and for fans every time it plays. Hornby describes his experience of the song as a kind of mimesis, in its perennial capacity to “express who you are, perfectly”: who he is, he must mean, although the second person – in which the bulk of the song is written – is significant. The song itself begins – after a brief descriptive intro – with a series of apostrophes, of interpellations that present themselves as urgent invitations, open doors:
The screen door slams. Mary’s dress waves.
Like a vision she dances across the porch
as the radio plays.
Roy Orbison singing for the lonely,
Hey that’s me, and I want you only.
Don’t turn me home again. I just can’t face
myself alone again.
Don’t run back inside, darlin’ – you know
just what I’m here for.
So you’re scared and you’re thinking that
maybe we ain’t that young anymore.
Show a little faith there’s magic in the night.
You ain’t a beauty but yeah you’re alright.
The shift from the distance of romantic spectacle to something like discursive proximity – close enough to make yourself heard – hinges on another inset moment of audibility, and of interpellation: Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely” (echoed in the end rhymes) not only mimes the persona’s desire for Mary, but also hails him into existence, into audible range, as both a listening and a speaking-singing subject: “Hey, that’s me . . . .” Hearing Roy Orbison’s song on Mary’s radio gives him voice, and lets him talk, and also offers him a vocabulary and an idiom through which the rest of his own song can play out.
Professing desire beyond what he’s able or willing to say means for him returning to a literacy, to a kind of “talk,” a cultural field that the soundscape of rock’n’roll provides him with: “Now I got this guitar, and I learned how to make it talk.” Springsteen positions himself both as ventriloquizing fan and as nascent legend to produce a kind of proactive audience, a practice of listening that means trying to learn how to attend to others while still managing to talk for yourself, and to talk yourself up. The song offers an extended invitation to a feminized, idealized other; Springsteen, from somewhere within the heteronormative city limits of an imaginary Freehold, New Jersey, asks his own listeners – on this the opening track of Born to Run – to be like Mary and to get in the front seat of his car and pull out of the deadened space of here with him, to win. That idealization is also both fractured and resisted, even as it’s declaimed as an article of faith, by insistent disavowals and negations (“ain’t . . . ain’t . . .”), and by Mary’s coy but very real refusals. If she seems to be framed merely as an object of his desire, existing “only” for him to overcome his loneliness and affirm his masculine agency, his long cascade of pleas and poetic flattery, of goading and passive aggressive come-ons, also tends to undermine itself from the outset; after all, who in their right mind would accept a date from a man who tells you you’re not beautiful, but just alright? Sure, he’s just being honest, I guess, but the conventional hyperbole inherent in love song lyrics, diffused into something plain and mundane, also loses most of its persuasive tug, its “magic.”
What’s worth noting is that, even if we end up choosing not to go with him somewhere else (and as “Born to Run” puts it, to “get out while we’re young”), or if on the other hand we turn out to be willing to trade in our angelic wings for some very earthbound wheels, what we experience for the five minutes of “Thunder Road” is still a sustained and open invitation, a seemingly one-sided conversation that nonetheless keeps asking us to respond, and that leaves its requests unanswered, those imaginary responses as-yet and always unheard, either from Mary or from us: they’re all potential, all unfulfilled promise. “The door’s open,” we’re told, “but the ride ain’t free.” And the return, that cost, is a commitment to reciprocity. So when Nick Hornby says the song expresses “who you are, perfectly,” what he must mean, what he can only mean, is actually opposite to perfection or to closure; the song’s conversant subject, the “me” who both listens for and sings to Mary, never coheres, but remains unfinished, a figuration of desire.
When I was sixteen, I finished my grade eleven economics exam early, and I couldn’t leave the exam room, so I copied out from memory the lyrics to “Thunder Road” on the back of the exam booklet. It was a young fan’s act of mimicry, though I’m not sure what those lyrics might even have meant to me then, if I understood them or identified myself through them the way I might now, or might not. But what I do recognize in retrospect is that re-writing, transcribing, Springsteen’s words by hand was an initial gesture at that reciprocity. In those few free minutes, I started to write myself into a dialogue – a little like fourteen-year-old Terry Blanchard in Kevin Major’s YA novel Dear Bruce Springsteen – a conversation with whoever it was I’d always want to become. “My love, love, love,” he sings later and elsewhere, “will not let you down.” That’s not to say Springsteen’s songs will tell us who we are, but that they will always keep that reciprocal Eros, that mutuality, live and open, that invitation to join him heading down the road.
Carly Rae Jepson’s "Call Me Maybe": lecture notes and audio
For our second class of English 228B here at the University of British Columbia, I drafted a short lecture on reading – on beginning a close reading – Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe,” a song which I had used as an introductory example in the first class, on pop music and lyrics. The students had been asked to look at the video, and to look at the “parody” done by Carly Rae Jepson with Jimmy Fallon and The Roots. I decided to write out some lecture text – the preferred mode for the class, I’m imagining, will be workshop discussion – in order to give something of a firm anchor point from which to begin thinking about how reading takes place. The class took place on Wednesday, January 8, 2014. An audio capture of the lecture portion of the class (hosted on my SoundCloud page) is attached below. (Just a note – in the audio, I credit Eve Kosofsky Sedwick with the term “heteronormativity” [I am thinking of her introduction to Epistemology of the Closet], but the term seems to have originated with Michael Warner.)
The protagonist of Nick Hornby’s 1995 novel High Fidelity, Rob Fleming, defines his self-awareness in terms of his record collection, an accumulation of popular music he inhabits and that gives him a second-hand voice: “Is it wrong, wanting to be at home with your record collection? It’s not like collecting records is like collecting stamps, or beermats, or antique thimbles. There’s a whole world in here, a nicer, dirtier, more violent, more peaceful, more colorful, sleazier, more dangerous, more loving world than the world I live in; there is history, and geography, and poetry, and countless other things I should have studied at school, including music.” Following on our initial reading of Carly Rae Jepson’s song “Call Me Maybe” at our first class, I want to suggest some of the ways we can begin to address what I called the “cultural work” of popular music, how (in more contemporary terms) the playlists of favourite songs – a version of what Rob Fleming and his record-store colleagues call their “top five“ lists – both produce and define their listeners as subjects, and speak to the welter of value systems – taste, morals, desires – through which we circulate.
For this course, I’m suggesting that we concentrate on the poetics of song lyrics, on the kinds of texts that popular music articulates but also on the cultural contexts in which those words operate. One of the things to notice in the passage from Nick Hornby’s novel – which we’re not reading in this course, and which I’m unlikely to mention again – is its utopianism: text and context intersect to form an ideal “whole world,” a world that appears to promise comfort and escape but that also presents a qualitatively better, richer position from which to view our contemporary world critically. (This is, as a matter of fact, one of the ways in which the Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch understood the transformative political impetus of utopian, as offering what he calls “the principle of hope,” as an instance of the “not yet.” ) In class last day, we arrived at a what seemed like an essential conflict in our assessments of “Call Me Maybe” – both the lyrics and the video – that suggests that the song might either encourage conformity to an illusory middle-class heteronormativity (the romantic idealism that manifests itself in clichés that come from other pop songs and romance novels – “I trade my soul for a wish”) or that it might be a critically-minded parody of those dangerously mindless delusions, that it does in fact see the boy-girl, romantic-rescue scenario it thematizes as “crazy” and disempowering (some of you noted, for example, how the song appears to invert the terms of agency, so that the stereotypically passive ingénue becomes the one who is actively seeking an erotic encounter, thus undermining heteronormative gender hierarchies – an inversion marked in the video, although not in the song itself, by the singer’s disappointment when it’s revealed that the object of her desire, of her gaze, is gay). We might appear to have reached a bit of a stalemate: which reading of the song is right, or at least to be preferred? Is the utopianism of the song’s vestigial “romance” narrative self-reflexively critical or does it merely reproduce coercive mass-culture escapism?
I want to look at the lyrics to try to work our way through this dilemma, and to think about how popular song interpellates us as listening subjects. By “interpellate,” I mean what Louis Althusser describes as “hailing,” when the apparatus of the state or of “ideology” calls out to us. Althusser’s famous example is a policeman’s “Hey, you!” but I want us to think for a moment about how this song calls us, maybe. The trope in the title is the phone call, after the persona behind the lyrics has given her number to a prospective lover. That number is, if you think about it, a marker of personal identity, like her name. To be called at your number is to be recognized, to be desired back, and, as the title indicates, to be hailed as a “me,” as somebody who’s seen, whose gaze (“I looked to you,” “I wasn’t looking for this”) is returned, who gets noticed, seen herself. Not to be noticed, in this schema, is to be nobody.
The song remains, however, in a kind of state of abeyance around this possibility. We don’t know if her call or her gaze is answered, if she does get interpellated by her prospective “baby.” The title (which is also the tag line of the chorus) indicates this uncertainty in its clipped and tenuous syntax – it doesn’t feel like a proper sentence – but it can also be read as the persona naming herself: her name, what she’s called, is Maybe. Her sense of self consists in the dilemma we’re contingently trying to resolve here. She’s an aggregate of her own desires, uncertain of the terms in which those desires can articulate themselves. Her sense of the rightness of her object of desire, the “foresight” she seems to have, attempts to firm itself up in the circular repetition of the chorus and the bridge – “Before you came into my life, I missed you so bad” – but in the temporal paradox that she voices here, that sureness and that feeling of (his) presence are effects of desire, of want, of absence, of “missing,” which in turn suggests that her maybe-ness is the only space she has, a fractured assemblage of clichés and skewed grammar that is as catchy as it is troubling.
Short Take on Paul Muldoon Talking, a Précis
Paul Muldoon was interviewed by John Freeman on stage at the Waterfront Theatre at the Vancouver International Writers Festival this afternoon, and he’ll be reading as one of eight poets at the Poetry Bash tonight at Performance Works on Granville Island. He was asked right off the bat to talk about his collaboration with Warren Zevon, which resulted in a song, “My Ride’s Here,” the title track on Zevon’s last record (and was then covered for a posthumous tribute album by none other than Bruce Springsteen). Mr Muldoon said he “kind of went to school with Warren Zevon,” noting “just how difficult it is to write a song” to make it sound so effortless, and praising Zevon’s genius. He found himself, in composing his lyrics, trying to locate a raw, emotional “angle of entry” into a song. Asked to differentiate between poetry and song, he said: “I suppose at some level the pressure per square inch in that [Muldoon’s lyric, ‘You Say You’re Just Hanging Out . . .’] isn’t quite what it could be in one of the poems.” At the same time, he said how he wants to realize his own desire for directness and clarity, which lyrics can so better “at some level.” He said he was still “struck by Seamus Heaney’s (I think) successful attempts to pick up Yeats’s suggestion that ‘Myself I must remake,'” and also declared that “poems are more evidently (not necessarily more truly) made out of the core of one’s being.” He described the impact of BBC radio on his desire for clarity and “the need to be direct.” At John Freeman’s request, he read “Wind and Tree” from his first collection: “In the way that most of the wind / Happens where there are trees, / Most of the world is centred / About ourselves.” He read from Madoc, noting as well that he was a “big fan of our friend Laurence Sterne” and how he had also derived a “fascination with lists” from Robinson Crusoe, Defoe’s interest in “stuff.” He said he encouraged his students to develop “a sense of the resonances of every word in a poem,” the specificity of language. He read his song-lyric, “Elephant Anthem,” and noted how he used to pore over lyrics printed on lp sleeves.
Lilac Wine: Helen Merrill, Part One
This past week, I discovered one of the remaining records on my wish list of almost impossible-to-find music: Helen Merrill’s American Country Songs, from 1959. My find wasn’t on vinyl, though, but that’s still fine by me. I’ll take what I can get. Worn copies of this never re-issued LP have appeared occasionally on eBay in the last decade, going for fifty bucks or more, and I’ve never managed to come out on top of the bidding. I have found the occasional Helen Merrill disc at my local used record store, but American Country Songs has eluded me. (A few months ago, I came across another one on my list, the triple-LP version of Keith Jarrett’s 1979 Concerts, so it’s been a pretty good year for the collection.) Atco WEA-Japan put out American Country Songs on CD in mid-January, and iTunes followed suit with a download. And there the music finally was, widely accessible again after more than fifty years of relative obscurity.
This record’s a peculiar genre hybrid, and it’s certainly not Helen Merrill’s best album. But its rarity has made it hugely alluring for me, and anything, anything, by Helen Merrill is going to be revelatory, never short of pretty much excellent, so I’m happy to have access to it, and to hear it. Helen Merrill has defined herself for more than half a century as a quintessential jazz singer, so country-and-western isn’t going to be her forte. A few country-jazz hybrids were emerging at the turn of the sixties, notably guitarist Hank Garland’s recordings with Gary Burton; Sonny Rollins’s Way Out West (with its famous William Claxton cover photo and its versions of “Wagon Wheels” and Johnny Mercer’s “I’m an Old Cowhand”) had appeared in 1957. But I’m not aware of any vocalists melding idioms; Patsy Cline’s “Walking After Midnight” had been a country-pop crossover hit in 1957, and the arrangements for strings (by Chuck Sagle) on American Country Songs draw overtly on contemporary country-pop style. Guitarist Mundell Lowe, who had notable associations with Sarah Vaughan and recorded third-streamish arrangementsof Alec Wilder, performs on the album, along with George DuVivier, Milt Hinton and Jo Jones, lending the music an artful legitimacy, although there are no searching improvisations; as the title suggests, the record aims to link jazz and country as forms of Americana, styles rooted in the same musical loam.
The record starts off with a string-rich arrangement of “Maybe Tomorrow,” with Merrill’s smoky lines overdubbed in stereo harmony. (“Devoted to You” gets a similar vocal duo treatment later in the set, but with a small backing band – vibes, guitar, bass, drums – instead) The effect is to draw a light but palpable resonance from Merrill’s voice: a barely breathy, gently grained texture that had become a hallmark of her own style. “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” stands out, with its half-speed vocal (“when time goes crawlin’ by”) set against warbling electric guitar and a double-time steam train shuffle, the drum-line falling somewhere between Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” (no kidding) and a C&W version of “Cherokee.” She works with and against time, threading it like tensile gold, attenuating its viscosities like taffy. On the whole, the album sound is playful, the arrangements mostly commercial and a little kitschy (“I’m Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail” is plain goofy, but cute): a bouquet of late 50s MOR, mostly sweet and lonely ballads swaddled in strings. But Helen Merrill’s syllable-by-syllable melodic craft, feeling her way along the purr and pull of each note, makes this music work.
The string section also gestures back (though not formally, merely as a kind of auditory trope) to her more sophisticated Mercury albums, particularly Helen Merrill With Strings(1955) and her collaboration with Gil Evans, Dream of You (1956). The opening track on the 1955 record is “Lilac Wine” – a song she was still performing when I saw her live in 1990 (which she described as “unusual”) and which was the title track of her 2004 album (which, unusually, also includes a cover of Radiohead’s “You”). The lyrics describe lilac wine as “sweet and heady, / like my love,” which also suggests about the timbre of her voice, its veiled headiness, its honeyed closeness. In an interview with Marc Myers for his Jazz Wax blog, in 2009, she recalls working with Gil Evans in July, 1956:
JW: Your phrasing on that session sounds like the basis for Miles Davis’ approach with Gil a year later in 1957 on Miles Ahead.
HM: I have no idea. Miles used to love my sound and always came to hear me sing. We were dear friends. He told me he loved my whisper sounds. That’s a technique Iused by getting up real close to the microphone. I’d sing almost in a whisper, which created a very intimate sound. I developed this by listening to my voice and trying different things with the mikes.
JW: Do you think Miles learned from your whisper technique?
HM: Miles learned from everyone. He was incredible. He took the best from everyone and threw away the rest. He was brilliant. One of the things he told me he loved about my voice was how I used space—both in music and between my voice and the mike.
This is a pretty big claim, and it seems a little suspicious to call Miles Davis a “dear friend.” But the comparison of their articulations is also deeply apt; their ballad styles are strikingly similar, with an attention to the delicate surges, the intimate breath-pressures within each note. And while American Country Songs can’t achieve the layered depths of a Gil Evans record (or of a Gil Evans-Helen Merrill record), the seductively undulant sound-space that Helen Merrill can and does create makes it an album so worth hearing.