Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
I couldn’t hear rhythm until I was 20 years old. Dancing utterly mystified me. It wasn’t so much that I danced badly (though I did), it’s that I had no concept of what dancing was. I could not see any correlation between the movement of dance and the sound of the music. It was just gibberish. I couldn’t even tap my foot along to a song. I almost failed wave mechanics my sophomore year because the professor explained everything using musical metaphors, which is actually very helpful, if you have the slightest fucking clue about music. For me it was like explaining colors to Helen Keller using jazz as a reference point. I had assumed I was simply musically retarded and that would be the end of it. I didn’t know I was missing anything.
Vodka and spandex changed that one delightful evening.
The girl I was seeing at the time was going through a major swing music phase (this was around the time of that six month swing resurgence led by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, etc.). I went to some swing dance classes with her. After a couple of sessions, the teacher just asked me to sit and observe because I ruined the class for whomever I was partnered with. So said girl decided that she’d get me to understand rhythm. The key was listening to part of the music, not all of the music. Just listen to the drums, ignore the rest, the drums are the beat. And with that almost stupidly simple insight that no one had ever seen fit to mention, rhythm entered my world in the form of the purple spandexed ass. It moved as the drums moved. Thank you purple spandexed ass, you and seven screwdrivers changed my perspective of the world.
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
I describe this personal musical retardation as an explanation for my own shortcomings: music reviews might as well be written in Greek for how well their descriptions penetrate my musically addled mind. This is not intended as a criticism of the wonderful music reviews of TK and others, but rather an attempt to feel out where my comprehension falls short. I am accustomed to understanding, and so a blind spot is terrifically frustrating. I feel compelled to poke and prod at it until I figure out why it is a blind spot.
Lyrics drive music for me. A paragraph describing how music sounds is almost meaningless to my mind. I know what the adjectives mean, what a “fast,” “angry,” “energetic,” “aggressive” song should sound like, but I don’t feel that translate into any sort of visceral reaction. On the other hand, “It’s about being too late to tell your estranged father you love him” (“4 A.M.”), “Some people say it’s about sex, but I think it’s a fuck you to god” (“Hallelujah”), “It’s a set of letters back and forth between a singer and a fan slowly going insane,” (“Stan”). Those are the sort of descriptions that drag me to hunt down a song, regardless of genre.
It goes like this: the fourth, the fifth
I think the highest form of music, the songs that really stick in my soul, are poetry set to music. I heard Leonard Cohen the first time on the Natural Born Killers soundtrack and was hooked. My introduction to Bob Dylan was the U2 cover of “All Along the Watchtower” on Rattle and Hum. These two have been the twin pillars, the poet laureates, piecing together words that draw other artists like sirens on the rocks. Other bands cover their songs, add layers of harmony and melody, flesh out the bones, but the soul still lives in the words.
Meaning is not always easy to wring from the words, but it is there. Good poetry unravels slowly, over the decades of your life, so what seemed triumphant doggerel at fifteen reveals a sad and melancholy heart when you’re thirty.
Half the time these type of songs don’t even have choruses, because hammering the same verse home again and again just gets in the way of drawing more words. Repetition can be an effective lyrical tool, but lesser artists tend to use it as a crutch, so that they can stretch the four good lines of a song into decent radio length. That’s why Nickelback and Creed can manage to sound good in short bursts of 30 seconds, but tally up the non-repeating parts of their albums and you’d be lucky to gleen a unique three minutes out of any of their albums.
The minor fall, the major lift
Some bands aren’t poets so much as storytellers, delivering complete narratives packed into a few lines of verse. Other bands spend entire careers writing album after album filled with variations on the same couple of songs about love. Love is a rather boring subject when decoupled from all the myriad context of the rest of living. Ballads seem a poor substitute for songs about the other ninety percent of life.
Flogging Molly is a particular favorite of mine, along with Social Distortion and Pulp. Their songs are difficult to succinctly summarize but always seem to tell the story of something, whether it’s reminiscing over the disaster of your twenties (“Ball and Chain”), or telling your son why he shouldn’t look up to you (“Little Soul”), or even just the life and times of the craziest pirate to ever haunt the seas (“Salty Dog”).
Maybe it’s because I’ve always been a writer first, but it’s those stories that draw me to a band. It’s amazing how much story can be distilled down into a few well crafted words. Poke around the internet and you can find micro-fiction boards, contests. Complete stories in fifty words or less. Such compressed stories leave all the non-critical details to the reader, they just sweep broad brushstrokes onto the canvas that the mind renders into something complete. Songs about stories work the same way.
The baffled king composing Hallelujah
“The last person on earth sits in a locked room. A knock rattles the door.” They say that is the shortest horror story in the world, because of the invisible monster that must lurk beyond the door. It may be the shortest story, but it is only a horror story by dint of the reader. An old time bible-thumper thinks it’s a beautiful story because it’s Jesus come knockin’. The optimist thinks the knock is proof that someone else survives. The cynic thinks the same thing. The nihilist thinks that the door will open to reveal nothing but a petrified tumbleweed thunking against the door in the forlorn wind blowing across the blasted plains. It’s a matter of perspective. It’s why Dickens wrote that it was both the best of times and the worst of times. It’s why we can peel back so many layers from so few words in poetry and song.
My particular affliction has led to the appearance of an eclectic taste in music, but that’s like saying a blind person has an eclectic taste of color palettes. I don’t mind twang in country, volume in metal, or the quiet spaces in acoustic folk, not because I musically appreciate all those things, but because I’m not really listening to the music. It’s why techno, jazz and classical music more or less baffle me. A song without lyrics is like a novel without words.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. He is a hopeless romantic who can be found wandering San Diego’s strip malls and suburbs looking for his mislaid soul and waiting for the revolution to come. Burning Violin is still published weekly on Wednesdays at www.burningviolin.com, along with assorted fiction and other ramblings.