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