Posts from 22nd January 2002

Jan 02

THINGS THAT ARE IMPOSSIBLE (But Pubs Expect Us To Do) 2: Carry more than two drinks to your table.

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2: Carry more than two drinks to your table.

Three pints of lager and a J20 cannot be transferred from the bar to your thirsty mates without spillage. It’s not as if most pubs don’t have trays; it’s just that they never offer them to you. The result? By 8.30pm, the floor of the pub looks like it’s been mopped with piss.

TANYA’S RAINBOW OF RUBBISH: Babes In Toyland – “Bruise Violet”

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TANYA’S RAINBOW OF RUBBISH: Babes In Toyland = “Bruise Violet”

Riot Grrls and I have an unhappy history together, readers. Of course when they turned up they declared war on dreary boyrock, and that’s a battle I’m always happy to fight, so I went along to the UK recruiting office. It turned out to be a smelly Brighton flat but hey, all revolutions have to start somewhere. More worrying was the fact that the flat was full of musical instruments – guitars, drums, a bass, even a microphone!

‘Do you play these?’ I asked in horror.

‘No way sister!’ replied one of the grrrls. I breathed a sigh of relief. Clearly they had stolen these instruments from evil BOYROCKERS and were now going to have them humanely destroyed. I told them to count me in!

‘Great!’ she said, ‘You’re in! We’re rehearsing Tuesday.’

CURSES! Too late I realized the error of my ways. My fearful question had been misinterpreted – of course the riot grrls could not ‘play’ their instruments the way the phallocrats defined it. However they certainly planned to get onstage and make a racket with them. Your reporter made her excuses, left, and then shopped the lot of them to the bailiffs.

Even so, wiping out all music made by half the Earth’s population is an aim I could get behind. But there were two problems with Riot Grrrl. First of all it became clear pretty quick that the problem was not so much men as the Riot Grrls! terrible taste in them. Take Courtney Love: Trent Reznor, Julian Cope and Kurt Cobain had one bath between them during the entire course of the twentieth century, and Billy Corgan is a bald egomaniac goth. Of course she’s going to have ‘issues’! Back in Britain meanwhile the grrrls from Huggy Bear were full of praise for one Blood Sausage, aka a tubby bloke called Dale who yelled ‘What law am I breaking now?’ over music sounding like a tramp humping a shopping trolley. The answer was ‘none’. Unfortunately.

The second problem was that Riot Grrrls weren’t very scary. The word ‘Grrrl’ should have tipped you off. ‘Grrr’ is what those scary riotous rule-breaking figures Tony the Tiger and Alan Partridge say – oh, and founding your whole movement on a weak pun is also no path to quality (see also: trip-hop). Riot Grrls talked tuff but they were as threatening as a Scooby Doo monster.

Which brings us to “Bruise Violet” by Babes in Toyland. Specifically the lyrics thereof which prove my point most elegantly. Here’s how they start: “You got this thing that really makes me hot / You got a lot and more when you get caught / You got this thing that follows me around / You fucking bitch I hope your insides rot / Liar liar liar” Wow this is hard-hitting stuff, brilliantly capturing the feeling when lust and loathing collide, etc. etc. Let?s see what they do next: “You see the stars through eyes lit up with lies / You got your stories all twisted up in mine / You were born with glue instead of spine?” – you tell ’em Babes in Toyland! Now finish them off with a killer last line:

“Of thee I sing tied to a string”


Speaking of patriotism…

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Speaking of patriotism…: “several other rappers have found themselves in the unusual position of supporting their government. New York collective the Wu-Tang Clan inserted a topical verse into their latest album, Iron Flag, that included the line: “America, together we stand, divided we fall.” “ The Guardian, talking about an upsurge of hip-hop patriotism post-11 September, fails to mention that the Wu follow this noble line with “Mr Bush sit down, I’m in charge of the war!”. Anyway, as is often the case with the Guardian, this article is a great idea for a feature but ends up rather pedestrian. The interesting question is one Pete touches on – patriotism can be “entertaining” but can it be funny? A half-minute’s thought leads me to think that humour relies on the unexpected, whereas patriotism is about reinforcing expectations. But “Okie From Muskogee” is nonetheless very funny, and so is the Wu-Tang’s “Rules”. Hmmm.

GEORGE JONES: Fighting Side Of Me

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GEORGE JONES: Fighting Side Of Me

I’m both an early starter and a latecomer to country. The first record I probably listened to at length was Glen Campbell’s 20 Golden Greats, which my mother used to play incessantly when I was about two. She had a thing for ‘Dreams Of The Everyday Housewife’ and I remember being whipped around the room on a number of occasions to that record, as some surrogate dance partner. Since then nothing until very recently. Then in the spirit of experimentation I bought a cheapy George Jones compilation.

Fighting Side Of Me is nowhere near the best track on this album, but it does showcase his tremendous voice very well. The means are a bunch of lyrics which seem awfully prescient at the moment, lyrics which I find both funny and a bit objectionable. The gist is that if you are running down his country (for which read the USA) you’ll be walking on the fighting side of old George. It seems to epitomise the tension inherent in freedom of speech, the liberal question in the US. Its the freedom which allows dissent – yet it is dissent which threatens to undermine the very way of life.

This track is not a very deep discussion of this philosophical problem set to a Nashville up-tempo swing. Written by Merle Haggard undoubtedly as a rebuff to much of the anti-Vietnam war sentiment in pop music at the time, it is nevertheless given almost flippant treatment by Jones. His voice hits odd peaks mid-sentence, and equally trembles like he is impersonating someone considerably older. Indeed his accent seems more pronounced – suggesting the whole piece is being sung in character. This oddly helps to highlight and then undermine the right wing anti-libertarian lyrics.

I would hardly say that Jones’s performance transforms it into an anti-American song. Much of the this reading of the song may be a rationale for me liking a song whose lyrics I find a wee bit uncomfortable. But like it I do, despite the ease that a song like this could be used as a rallying call for the conservative tendencies in the US. Oddly this is a long held stereotype of mine that country is a deeply conservative music, yet listening to Jones singing this I cannot help but think that even if this song is not meant to be a satire, Jones puts enough character in it to give me some doubts. I would like to hear a Haggard version to see if that is the case with the original. (Okie From Muskogee — another Haggard cover — also seems to be deeply conservative but its lyrics are intentionally funny I think).

THINGS THAT ARE IMPOSSIBLE (But Pubs Expect Us To Do) 1: Have a shit whilst holding the toilet door shut with out feet.

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1: Have a shit whilst holding the toilet door shut with out feet.

The cubicle door is always too far away, and the effort expended in keeping the door shut whilst extending the leg appears to close some internal valve making the previously desperate for movement impossible to complete.

Am I Ready To Be Heartbroken?

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Rosemary Squires – “I Poured My Heart Into A Song”

Irving Berlin wrote many songs about music, about singing and showmanship; ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’ and ‘Just A Couple of Song and Dance Men’ are about as reflexive as you could ask such tunes to get. This one’s a little different, though: for at stake in its act of reflection is not the general action of showmanship and theatre but the song – the artefact itself, the piece we’re listening to, ‘the words and tune’ as the third line has it. The song seems to demand an answer, to ask to be untangled.

It drifts in on a woodwind breath of enchantment, twinkling bells. There’s something of the ritual already at work: a planned address to the listener, a half-lit stage for questions and promises, a platform for imploring. Squires is dawdling in, a dizzy bride: da-da-da-da-da-dum, she murmurs. Charmed into a sleepy whisper by the music, perhaps, the bower of sound where she waits to look us in the eye. Or is she already performing the action of the title: pouring her heart, emotion dissolved into little exhalations? She begins to sing properly, to enunciate words. But they’re almost too enunciated, too deliberate. ‘I – poured my heart – into a song’. This ought to be a confession, a profession, a boast, an explanation. But Squires follows the rhythm a touch too closely for that. She’s intoning, speaking from rote. (Speak the speech, I pray you…) She’s singing a song, let’s say, rather than speaking her mind. She’s found some words she wants to sing to us, for their rise and fall, the tinkle of melody left inherent on the page of staves.

She does let go, does start to ‘speak’ rather than ‘sing’ – to give the appearance, that is, of speaking from her heart, rather than someone else’s book. ‘And when you hear it please remember from the start / You won’t be hearing just the words and tune of a song / You will be listening / To my heart’. The lines are starting to flow across their bars, the voice to find its pattern. But the sense of singing from somewhere else, sleepwalking through song, that I hear at the start, will remain central to this song as an event – to what it can possibly mean.

Forget the opening, the moon above the trees, the hush of the nursery. Here comes the band. ‘And if it’s never played / Upon the hit parade / It will still contain a heart that is beating true’. Something interesting is occurring here, as the horns, the rhythm section, the boys, all go to work. Sure, the track picks up a new tone: sass and swagger, winking and wiggling. But they’ve also taken over the regularity of the rhythm, imposed order down there: and in reply she’ll fly away from it when she likes, sing atop the beat but also against it. Part of this seems to be about ‘ownership’ – about to whom the words belong. Maybe that band has a stake in it now. But so does Rosemary Squires, who picks up sentences and shakes them. It’s going to be up to her what she does with these phrases. Minor chord. ‘And if it’s not a hit / Well, I won’t mind a bit / Long as it conveys the love that I bear for you’. We are in full flight now: it’s not going to let up.

‘Soooooo’ – she’s teasing – ‘Here is my heart wrapped up in a song’: the same anew. ‘And if you take it please don’t tear my song apart / For if you do you won’t be just destroying a song / You will be tearing up my heart’. The image has changed: from the fluid heart which is poured, to the hidden heart which is covered. In the first, song is the mould which gives shape to heart: form to its content. In the second, the heart is a gift: the song is wrapping paper. Either way the song is the inconsequential side of the equation: mere trapping to the heart’s essence, its – well, its heart. Then again – ‘if you take it please don’t tear my song apart’? That suggests something quite different: if you take the heart, don’t damage what it’s wrapped in: for the wrapping is the heart. The song and the heart are no longer easy to distinguish: slight one and you hurt the other. And ‘Poured my heart’ suggests something abandoned: not just that an elaborate new guise has been found for the heart, but that the heart has been spent. (I poured my life into that job: I poured heart and soul into that marriage.) This is a gamble, a bid. If the song doesn’t work, nor does the heart. It would break, if there was enough of it left to break. Bets are off, the heart has been poured into its new vessel. Take it or leave me.

Success, though, is ambiguous. ‘And if it’s never played / On the hit parade’ –that says, if it fails – ‘It will still contain a heart that is beating true’. This is an allegory of pop, of audience and market, of the writer’s last defence. I don’t care if no-one buys it – I know what it means. And I’d like it if you did too. But even that may not be vital – the author may be able to live in the knowledge of the song’s integrity. ‘Long as it conveys the love that I bear for you’ – conveys, to whom? To ‘you’, it would seem (that means, to us – to you or me). But I’m not sure: to convey it anywhere, to convey it back in a circuit to where it came, might be enough.
What’s clear, though, is that the song allows itself a margin of error. It’s a pop song, it twinkles and swings, it seems to speak to the charts: but in doing so it lets them know that it can live without them. It informs us that the pop song has a double life: as a worldly phenomenon, a noise on the radio in an office in another city, the tune the checkout girls are whistling; but also as an experience in the writer’s own life, a message he or she understands, even if no-one else does. (‘These are private words’, wrote T.S. Eliot, ‘addressed to you in public.’) A song may have a secret life; it may speak to many ears, or just a couple; it may win by the writer’s private book of rules, even as it loses by everyone else’s.

What Rosemary Squires has left to do is to intensify and repeat: ‘And if it’s never played / On the great big Hit Parade…’. The band can blast away on a couple of breaks, raising the key: she sails back in at this new pitch, let looser than ever. ‘Don’t tear it apart’, spinning across the beat now, ‘oh, because if you do you won’t be just destroyin’ a song! You will be tearing up my heart’. Impossible to miss the odd arrangement of words here, the slangy placement of ‘just’ just where it shouldn’t be – which imperfection both leaves the stress in the right place (You won’t only be destroying a song – you’ll also…) and works to personalize the thought, keep things conversational. The conversation, perhaps, of a couple of dancers, cheek to cheek, hurtling back into the corner as the band signals an end, the words of one cut loose from inhibition and into perspiring boldness.
It’s one of the best songs about a song I can think of: a performance which spends its time explaining its own significance. As I’ve said, it’s about the relation a song has to its audience (and the author’s pre-emptive attempts to define that relationship): and about the relation a song has to its content. It thinks, or has us think, about whether a song is the mere container of emotion, or whether, if you set your feelings to music, the music becomes identical with them – comes to embody them. ‘I poured my heart into a song’: so I’d better warn you now, as this song begins, and still, obsessively, as it ends, that I don’t think I’ll be able to stand it if you criticize it too much. Because my songs are not just, as is sometimes said, my children – they’re a part of me: parts of me I’ve left behind for you (and you, and you) to hear when I’m not here, for they’ll anyway speak more sweetly than I ever could.
None of this quite exhausts the track, though. For its self-referential abysms are only made darker by the thought that Rosemary Squires didn’t pour her heart into this song: Irving Berlin did. He wrote a song about saying it with music, about the pop song as intimate communication, a contact so direct that he might laugh off its fate in the charts as secondary flim-flam. Yet the song’s fate – the fate of any Berlin song – is to be sung by someone else. Its life, its blood, will only be infused, transfused, by Rosemary Squires, or whoever else fancies the tune. (And the fate of a song in the hands, the lungs, of a singer, is a chancy thing. Are we to hear Squires, released into the inexactnesses of ‘jazz’, as ‘tearing’ at the song itself, enacting something of its theme?) It’s a song that claims to be all heart, but right from the start needs a heart transplant. It’s not, perhaps, radically different from all those other songs (most, maybe, of the best songs) written by one and sung by another – a process with which we all feel familiar. But more than many of those other instances it makes us reflect on the relationship, the transfer of voice and feeling which is involved: on the strange business of pouring your heart into a song that already claims to be made of someone else’s (two hearts, maybe, are better than one; two hearts living in just one song). Sing a song like this, and are you giving your heart away, or borrowing someone else’s?

The Pinefox