More Posts About Lyrics and Tunes #3: “A Wild Holy Band,” Mike Scott

January 30, 2011 § 11 Comments

This song was released as a demo on the CD that came with the Believer‘s 2009 music issue.  I liked it when I first listened to it, then more or less forgot about it for a year.  I generally don’t listen to this kind of compilation CD very much, but for whatever reason I put this one back in earlier this year, and promptly became totally obsessed with this song.  (Unfortunately, it’s still unreleased in any other form, so far as I can tell, so I can’t give you a link to it here.  [UPDATE, 1/25/12: Mike Scott has posted the song for one night only to http://soundcloud.com/mickpuck/long-strange-golden-road-a.  Listen there!]  You can find plenty of the Waterboys, Mike Scott’s band, to get a sense of the sound.)

The song’s ten-plus minutes: for the first nine or so, it’s just piano, acoustic guitar, and what I’m guessing is a drum machine, plugging along, workmanlike (with some quite lovely passages on the piano and guitar), under Scott’s really great Scottish lilt.  Five verses and an absolutely killer chorus.  It’s a song that cries out for interpretation, analysis, but even though it’s supposedly a demo, it forms a gestalt: it’s a song, not a poem, and you can’t get it all just by looking at the lyrics.  So much is in the delivery.  But what lyrics!

I was longing to be booed/ I was ready to be humbled/ by the words that you had written/ by the syllables you mumbled

Yeah, I was ready in my heart/ to have my heart invaded/ by the fervor of your passion/ yes, I came to be persuaded

But when I heard your ragged voice/ something switched in my perception/ and I knew I was the victim/ of a beautiful deception

All my once exact beliefs/ like tangled threads unraveled/ I walked out stunned and liberated/ and so began my travels

CHORUS: Keep the river on your right/ and the highway at your shoulder/ and the front line in your sights, Pioneer/ keep your eye on the road/ remember what you told her/ this is all in code, my dear

The only word in the whole song I’m not reasonably sure about hearing correctly is that “booed” in the very first line: it sure sounds like “booed” to me, though I always assumed it was “moved” before I started listening closely to transcribe the lyrics.  In context, “booed” makes some sense, leading to that readiness “to be humbled” — but I’m not sure.  [UPDATE, 1/25/12: Mike Scott posts to Twitter: “Mystery word in verse 1 is “wooed,” not “booed.”  Thanks to Mr. Scott for clearing it up!]  Either way, this first verse sets a great scene.  It could be some combination of a “Dear John” letter and a confrontation at the end of a relationship; it could be a teacher/student relationship, the switch in “perception” being that the teacher has nothing more to teach the student; it could be any number of more allegorical or spiritual meanings.  But I really love those last two lines of the chorus: “remember what you told her/ this is all in code, my dear.”  Is “this” the song?  Is there a code here?  And is “Pioneer” a name, a code name, a type, a la Whitman?

“You better get yourself a coat”/ said the handsome taxi driver/ and he sighed like seven bridges/ like a natural-born survivor

As we drove into the night/ I could feel the forest jangling/ all the choices laid before me/ and their consequences dangling

We came upon a stricken ship/ that must have once been splendid/ the captain as he died said/ “Boys, our revels now have ended”

I heard a wild holy band/ playing jazz that was outrageous/ that recalled the days of rapture/ when our love was still young and contagious

[CHORUS]

This is my favorite verse, and a helluva piece of poetry in its own right.  That “forest jangling” from adrenaline (or something more?), that cryptic ship, the “jazz that was outrageous”: it’s here that we start to realize that we’re in Beat territory.  “Seven bridges” is another lyric I’m not 100% sure about, but I kind of like its mystery.

In a dim-lit motel room/ two sad lovers were discoursing/ on the dignity of exile/ and the merits of divorcing

She said/ “All certainty is gone”/ but he leapt up, still denying/ cried, “I won’t believe the flame I lit/ is dead or even dying”

She left him drooling in the dust/ and with rucksack packed begun her/ bitter journey to the border/ which is where I wooed and won her

She was Aphrodite, Helen, Thetis/ Eve among the satyrs/ she was Venus in a v-neck sweater/ she was all that ever mattered

[CHORUS]

And this is probably my least favorite verse: I like “Eve among the satyrs,” not so big on “Venus in a v-neck sweater,” and the rhythm of the third quatrain is a little strained.  As the verse begins, you think this might be a flashback to the opening scene, until hearing that the narrator “wooed and won her” at the “border” after this confrontation — similar, perhaps, to his own.

Like Dean Moriarty’s ghost/ I came in quest of secret knowledge/ in the winter of my journey/ to a crumbling Druid college

There I read the books of lore/ and contemplated in seclusion/ but I took my leave embittered/ still in love with my illusions

In the drizzling Irish rain/ as a tender dawn was breaking/ in a doorway I stood spellbound by/ the ancient music they were making

I took my breakfast with the gods/ on a blushing summer morning/ a wind blew them all away/ without a moment’s warning

[CHORUS]

Quite a change in scene, here, and the song comes to seem more like a bildungsroman, or a story of the narrator’s spiritual quest.  We have here a direct allusion to On the Road, and that’s fitting, with that work’s blend of the profane and sacred, the sexual and the spiritual.  “Still in love with my illusions” seems a very important line here, and the mystery of the “breakfast with the gods” and then their sudden absence.

Under cold electric light/ I watched the scenes mutating/ like an old-time frontier ballad/ or a carousel rotating

As if in a moment from a film/ with astonishing precision/ the camera zooms in closer/ and a figure comes into vision

I’m in Tokyo; it’s dawn/ and it’s raining hallelujahs/ down the bright-lit neon canyons/ along the sidewalks of Shibuya

I’m trying to take a stance/ and rise above my contradictions/ but I’m just a bunch of words in pants/ most of those are fiction

[CHORUS x2]

[AWESOME ELECTRIC GUITAR SOLO]

This is another pretty fantastic verse, with one helluva final quatrain.  “Just a bunch of words in pants”!  Jesus, what a line.  Most of us should be so lucky to write one line so great; this song has three or four at that level.  This verse really makes me think of the song as a spiritual quest, with serious Buddhist underpinnings: its recollection of epiphany or near-epiphany (what does it mean to “rain hallelujahs”?)  in Japan, followed by the (necessary?) devastation of realizing the hollowness of existence or identity, of being mostly “fiction.

And yet there’s that inescapable, beautiful, hopeful chorus, which Scott uses with such versatility and passion throughout the song.  Somehow — and this may just be me — I connect it in my mind with that Irish blessing you see in pubs and shops and elsewhere: “May the road rise up to meet you./ May the wind be always at your back./ May the sun shine warm upon your face;/ the rains fall soft upon your fields; and until we meet again,/ may God hold you in the palm of His hand.”   Yeah, it’s a song about God, I think, or about one man’s quest for “secret knowledge” of something like a god, at any rate.  The first verse is covered in this kind of language of the spiritual.  Is that the “code” that “this is all in” — the code of the pop song that seems like it’s about sex or lust and is actually about the desire to let go of the self, to find the divine?

Either way, the kick-ass electric guitar kicking in at the end here never fails to absolutely delight me: it’s such a surprise, and it functions as a kind of wordless, wild epiphany and ecstasy after minutes of repetitive sound with little variation.

Five Favorites, Five Mysteries from Only Revolutions

July 20, 2009 § 1 Comment

Just finished: Only Revolutions.

Okay, enough attempts at coherent thought: let’s do some lists on this soggy, boggy monster!

Five favorite things about the book that I haven’t discussed yet:

-The call-and-response of plants and animals, coming to life in the first half of each narrative and dying in their turns (boldface turned to gray).  The pronouncements about them maybe forming a kind of Whitmanian choral voice of “the land,” and an ecological message.  This is also one of the elements that seems to indicate that Sam and Hailey are more than human: symbols, but also perhaps gods — of nature and technology?

-The 10th section, p. 73-80, S&H’s adventure in New Orleans.  I love any epic poem which makes room for two different lists of pies.  Also love how this section leads us into the roaring ’20s in Sam’s narrative, and through ’68-’69 in Hailey’s: the mix of debauchery and darkness, plus the voodoo sexuality of The Creep (see below).

-HONEY.  I love honey.  When I worked for a food broker in Chicago, I got to know about the different grades and varieties, and totally fell in love with the stuff.  (As I told Jaime the other day: people should care less about wine and beer and more about cheese and honey.)  Here, it functions as something like ambrosia: the food of the gods, powering Sam and Hailey’s love.  Its gold color, the fact that it is one of the only foods which never spoils, that it is a completely natural product which requires husbandry rather than slaughter, and of course its relationship to stinging bees: it all seems perfect.  (I must say I’m baffled as to why they always have a half-jar left in their stash, though.)

-The mindbending, slapstick St. Louis center.  Especially the use of St. Louis’s awesome street names like Chouteau (although I was sad he didn’t use Kingshighway).  And throughout, the poetry of American place: “Mishishishi” (the S&H-centric spelling of Mississippi), Nauvoo, Hannibal, Keokuk.

-The language itself, with its loose poetry of rhymes and rhythms and portmanteau words, is often amazing.  A (less than amazing, but representative) example, from a random opening, and incorporating those place names I love: “Confined to no loss.  Beyond stops we all/ toss.  Because we’re emergent.  Allways divergent./  Down shifting only when we reach La Crosse.”  (As a footnote, I also really loved the use of allone and allways: allone, especially, really added something to the meaning of alone for me.)

And then five things I’m fairly baffled about:

-The Creep.  The villain of the piece, and I guess it’s possible to just see him/her/it as something like the twirly-mustache-black-cape figure of melodrama, but there actually is something creepy about him.  The book felt most like House of Leaves to me in his sections: the purple-pink in which his name appears somehow leaving you with this dread akin to some of the colored words and typographic effects in HoL.  He is described in such mysterious ways: he might be simply a concentrate of dark American impulses towards taking what we want when we want it, or a sort of “dark side” of Sam and Hailey, or something else entirely (in my brief dabbling on the OR forums on Z’s website, I came across a thread suggesting Creep might be the destructive aspect of Sam/Hailey in the other’s narrative.  Interesting, but I remain baffled.)

-“Flash, searing lime to wide.”  Wha?  I guess it’s the lightning to the “ThUuuUuunder” on the opposite side of the page.  But why lime?  Why wide?  And why the lightning/thunder at all?  I appreciate the assonance, and the attempt (maybe?) at the effect of really bright lightning on the backs of your eyelids.  It just seems so out of context whenever it appears.

-The small circles in the corners of a few pages.  These are black circles with gold or green “irises”, or near the end of each narrative, the book’s symbol of two lines in a circle.  Never really got my mind around what these were meant to indicate, except (perhaps) a restarting of the narrative for the two-line-circle symbol.

-The Leftwrist Twists.  Either watches or bracelets, made of materials from “Shit” to “Gold”; since the book itself is a timepiece of sorts, these are perhaps just a reflexive way of pointing to that fact.  Again, though, the frequent references to these are dropped into the narrative in a jarring, seemingly random (but surely not) way of which I could never quite seem to grasp the full significance.

-The marriage and consummation.  Somehow I’ve gotten through all this without discussing the sex.  It seems so out of step with the whole tone of the rest of the book that Hailey only comes, and Sam only refrains from withdrawing, after their marriage.  Why is this marriage necessary?  Is Z actually trying to say something about responsibility, abstinence, “safe sex,” or is it a contrivance to discuss prohibited forms of marriage in America, or a way to link to Romeo and Juliet, or what?  I think it does have to do with S&H committing to each other — valuing the other over the self — but for some reason the marriage bothered me, in such a heightened, stylized, idyllic work.

So Many Names, So Few I Know

May 17, 2009 § 1 Comment

Now reading: The Savage Detectives, by Roberto Bolaño.

Jaime warned me that she’d never read a book with more characters than this one.  I’m starting to believe this wasn’t an exaggeration.

The first section of this book is an immersion in Latin American poetry and literary history; for someone like me, with little knowledge about Mexican or Latin American literary history, one of the challenges of this book is trying to sort out the real poets given fictional parts — the ones that are supposed to resonate in one way or another with educated readers — from the “purely” fictional poets, the ones created by Bolaño or at least not known to readers.  Given how much of the book so far is made up of discussions and mentions and critiques of these poets real and imaginary, I am somewhat amazed that an American publisher had the courage to publish this book, to expect us, the notoriously insular and xenophobic (not to mention vanishing and subliterate) American Reading Public, to care about this flood of narrative about Latin American poetry.

And yet the gist of all of these names is fairly clear: this is the diary of a young man, a young Mexican poet, casting off the shackles of academia to read whatever he wants, to try to live the life he thinks a poet should lead, to talk about poetry and receive recommendations for poets to read, poets he thinks he should already know but does not, poets others seem to take for granted as major figures but whom he’s never heard of.  Anyone who’s been in a literature class in college has had this experience, and anyone who’s actually been an English major has had it frequently.

But the names!  My God, the names!  Bolaño reminds me a lot of Melville at times, in his overindulgence in lists and names, although I’m sure Whitman is probably the more logical influence.  The most obvious example is the exegesis delivered by Ernesto San Epifanio in Garcia Madero’s November 22 entry. This section reminds me a lot of the famous “Cetology” chapter of Moby-Dick, which divided whales into groups by size like books.  Here, San Epifanio divides literature into sexuality by its form (novels are hetero, poetry homo), and subdivides poetry into many different subcultures: “faggots, queers, sissies, freaks, butches, fairies, nymphs, and philenes,” according to the intent and the effect of the poetry.  (Whitman, if you’re wondering, is “a faggot poet.”)

Like “Cetology,” it is satirical; both works are attacking pedantry at some level.  In both works you get the sense that the author is very much in on the joke, recognizes the absurdity of these semantic systems they’ve created.  However, I’m not sure to what degree San Epifanio himself takes his labeling system seriously; he may be critiquing the splintering and ghettoization and mindless ideological following of the many schools of poetic practice, or he may be a part of that splintering and ghettoization.  He may not even know about the satirical content of his classification system; as a homosexual in the macho Mexican 1970s, and a founder of the “Homosexual Communist Party of Mexico,” he may just be trying to queer his literary heritage.

Whatever the case may be, this passage points out the excellent, subtle touch Bolaño seemed to have at letting his book work on multiple levels.  It is deceptively simple; it can also be deceptively boring at times.  But there’s always a lot going on, even in lists of names I need to feed to Google for verification of identity.

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