What is it about a great song? I’ll read a story I love once, twice, if I really fall head over heels for it. Two or three times will be enough for a favorite film but a great song I’ll listen to over and over again. Are they like magic spells and there’s an incessant incantation they require?
About songs you’re addicted to – here’s a hypothesis – they open up a psychic place where you want to be.
I was hanging out with two kids last night, a 9-year-old and a 6-year-old. We were staring into a big aquarium that had lots of little craggy hiding spots for the fish. The little girls got so excited about the fish getting into those little spaces. We were thrilled at how tiny they were – their bright blue faces peeking out of the darkness. It was sweet to be in those little girls’ world there for that minute, remembering what playing was really like – to be lost and high on one’s imagination. Without making any sort of spacial connection, I was walking home through the ice and snow back to my place, thinking about songs.
I’m always thinking about how songs work. I like making generalisations about function and form, taking one function and applying it to an unaccustomed form – that sort of thing.
I love to pick on Gram Parsons in my head. He died so young, and his strengths were half-realized. Some of his songs have brilliant little sparks, but they’re full of interesting structural flaws. I was thinking about this one gorgeously distorted song he wrote ‘High Fashion Queen’. I’ve been haunted by that song recently – it keeps coming back to me. I’ve never heard his own version, just the one by Chris Hillman and Steve Earle.
It’s the kind of music I was raised on – a Texas bar band fast two step dance tune. The template for those song is so amazing – they are confessional, boozy stories dripping with the horror of everyday life – lost love, shattered dreams, admissions of personal crimes and failures; but the music is bright, fast, electric, driving, in major keys, with cheerful thirds of comforting, predictable vocal harmony. The beat is polka-ish, from the Europeans that settled the region (when the Hollands came to the new world, they were Heidelburgs, from Prussia.) The same sort of harmonies and rhythm can be heard in Northern Mexican music.
There’s a song on Willie Nelson’s album, Crazy: the demo sessions. Aside from being a wonderful song to dance to, ‘Things to Remember’ is a perfect description of a person doing their best to learn how to dissociate their mind from psychological trauma. Willie’s song can be taken as a flower of the form. He’s such a masterful writer, even when he was this young.
True to the form, Gram’s lyrics for ‘High Fashion Queen’are about being a sad sack loser, getting drunk and picking up girls in the same bar night after night. It’s embarrassing that the doorman, and all the patrons know what the hell is wrong with him. In the end it lifts into a perspective twist that I’ve never heard another similar type of song go into. He abruptly starts speaking to himself, and says, well it”s all alright, because I’m a high fashion queen. In real life, Gram really would show up at crappy little gigs in a long white limo, wearing a nudie suit, high off his ass, and bomb hard, insensibly.
It’s hilarious; he’s calling himself a high fashion queen in the midst of a Texas bar band dance tune. At the time he was real good buddies with the Rolling Stones – and some people said it was downright homoerotic how much he and Keith loved each other. The implication of homoeroticism in this context is awesome, bold and adorable. But what’s more powerful for me is the intensity of the perspective downshift that he has made – he abruptly moves from external story-telling to terse intrapersonal communication. It’s like the good shit in the best classic Zen haiku. It’s strung-out, tripped-out bar band Zen haiku. I fucking love it. The humor and the unexpected movement is so perfectly illustrative of a desperately drunken mindset. He paints the picture and then he drags you into it (against his young, sweaty, drunken body in a suit sequined with peyote buttons.)
Anyway, I started making a correlation for myself as a songwriter, between the power of what the little girls were doing, to the power of what Gram was doing. Putting yourself magically into a imagined place. Playing and playing.
And I wonder how I might do that successfully, the next time I’m moved to write a song that requires a space. How will I paint the picture, and what will be the quality of the space I will be able to open?
I’ve always been impressed by the literary quality of your songs. Lyrics can often be basic. Even a great song can present itself with no more sophistication or originality than a Hallmark message. The words serve as cues for music and voice. Then there are lyrics that barely get noticed within the seductions of a singing voice and the romance of the music, but you feel compelled to stop everything. Kill the music. Choke off that voice. Pay attention to this far more subtle expression that opens us up in more profound ways than the song and dance will allow. Of course it’s brilliant when you get both, and you often do that in your music.
In a song like ‘Corrido Por Buddy’ there’s the way it simply works musically but the narrative is crystal clear. A junkie wanders the streets of New Orleans and bumps into a friend who knew him before he started using. The song then draws us into an act of compassion which goes beyond simple sympathy. A line like ‘what if they only gave you love when you lied?’ is a potent glimpse of a whole family history but there are ways that line keeps opening up, and makes us look at ourselves. Does the singer create beautiful lies for the same reason? Do all us that put on the various masks the world needs us to wear, tell lies in similar ways?
I’m wondering if you could talk a little about this song but also about how a piece like this evolves.
Unfortunately, the ‘love/lied’ line is very literal. He was a gay Mormon who was raised in a sexually abusive family. He only got affirmation for his false self. It’s not metaphorical in any sense. Of course, most of us have had the experience of being given positive reinforcement for being untruthful.
You picked a rough subject to talk about! I could put together a few paragraphs for our fallen hero of the underworld but perhaps you might ask questions with less heart-rending subject matter.
Ironically, the song is modelled after forms which are about pure truth-telling, even to the point of endangering the songwriter. Corrido composers have been killed in gang warfare, and gang members have been convicted on evidence which was written into corridos. But that’s Mexican machismo for you. The gangsters hired the corrido writers to boast of their exploits.
Perhaps you could talk more generally about your influences and your feeling for music and poetry.
‘Music has power to ease tension within the heart and to loosen the grip of obscure emotions. The enthusiasm of the heart expresses itself involuntarily in a burst of song, in dance, and rhythmic movement of the body. From immemorial times the inspiring effect of the invisible sound that moves all hearts and draws them together has mystified mankind.’ Hexagram Sixteen, I CHING.
No, I don’t read much poetry these days. There’s just no need for it, because I get enough through my ears, and from the mess that’s already reverberating around in my skull.
When I was thirteen, I used to get high on Dylan Thomas, Blake, Wilde and Yates. And I wrote poetry incessantly. It was a personal meditation that had very little to do with anything that went on at school. I was really entranced by structure, motif and repetition. It makes sense that I became a songwriter, because in songs, structure is so forefront.
Like I was saying about getting it through the ears, I want to tell you that this very instant, as I have set myself down at the corner bar to have dinner and write in my journal, I hear these words from a 1970s Jamaican recording coming in over the speakers:
There is a land far far away
Where there is no night, there is only day.
Look into the Book of Life and you will see—
There is a land far far away.
Through my experience of this Rastafarian chorus, I remember Emily Dickenson’s very useful definition of poetry, that poetry is that which makes one feel as though the top of one’s head has been taken off. I feel exactly what she was describing. To be very clear, the sensation is like having an acupuncture needle placed at one’s crown point, at the top of one’s head. That same sort of physical cue is exactly the same kind of meter I check when I’m deciding whether music is good or bad. As relates to the I-Ching quote, my friend Tim Freeman, in Texas would say, ‘You can tell whether it’s good music or bad depending on whether it loosens or tightens the grip of obscure emotions’.
I have explained it to myself many times, just as dinosaurs didn’t really disappear, but became birds, so the idea of poetry sitting in books on shelves has flown from the mass culture. Poetry has become songs. It’s no use, and I have no interest in bemoaning the fact that the poetry most widely consumed these days is aural.
I am fond of remembering that the roots of our poetic literature are oral, that Homer chanted or sang his words.
Poetry, in oral culture, has always been on the tongue, and spoken from pulpits. I always remember how one especially ignorant (white) critic of Zora Neale Hurston’s complained that a sermon she’d written into one of her books was too fanciful to have come out of the mouth of an ‘uneducated’ black preacher. But our Zora, a pioneer anthropologist, had recorded and quoted that sermon verbatim. Let us not forget she was present and influential at many of the great recording sessions Lomax conducted. The Lomax recordings of the Georgia Sea Island Singers contain some of the most important American poetry to me.
Adam in the garden
Picking up leaves
God called Adam
Picking up leaves
Adam wouldn’t answer
Picking up leaves
God called Adam
Picking up leaves
Picking up leaves
Adam wouldn’t answer
‘ADAM! WHERE ART THOU?’
Called, I’m ashamed’
God called Adam
Adam wouldn’t answer
The group stomps and claps while they chant “picking up leaves”. And the leader, in a strong voice, calls out the alternating words. This is a beautiful group meditation on the mythic material which describes the first moments a human being ever felt shame. If we can imagine the first moment a person experienced shame, we are given the opportunity to imagine a psychological space which existed before shame. It is a profoundly restorative and useful meditation, and one which was improvised within a community that could shelter and amplify one’s experience. This song, these words (performed without musical accompaniment), are some of the flowers of American oral culture.
I have no community with which I can sing and trance out. The closest I get to that experience is being able to sing with my friends, which we do professionally. I have this strange job of being a singer on stages. Whenever I do get to sing with my people, its rare that we’re not on a stage. And standing in front of an audience is certainly not conducive for meditation.
I believe I am so moved by a good gospel song partly because it tends to the experiential. I know that the song is designed to be of use, to move people, to move one’s energy – like Emily said, to take the top of your head off. Words on the page that can do that for me are few and far between. Songs that have that power are likewise few. As relates to the I-Ching quote, a lot of songs and poetry are emanations of souls that have no power of internal motion, and therefore can provide no inspiration for anyone else. Certainly, a lot of people are interested in the experience of music and poetry that don’t crack open the top of your head. But I don’t have room here to discuss why terrible music and poetry have been popular. (I’m sure that much of this magazine’s readership is familiar with the painful fact that two of America’s best selling poets, over the past few decades, have been Rod MacEwen and Jewel.)
Like Emily said, I don’t know how to talk about what poetry is, except to talk about the experience. It’s good to have your hand on the rudder, and know when the current is moving powerfully.
One little thing I’ve enjoyed noticing about internal form, is that both classic Zen haiku and my favorite American music do at least one little trick in common.
I’d describe the way classic Zen Haiku works in this way: the poet describes the world, and describes their own mind in one fine, deft stroke. Its like a report of what’s in front of, and behind the eyes. Here’s a couple sweet Basho poems that do it for me:
also sounds like it is
On a journey,
Resting beneath the cherry blossoms,
I feel myself to be in a Noh play.
And now check out how this verse of Gram Parsons’s works in a similar way:
‘We flew straight across that river bridge
last night at half past two.
Switchman waved his lantern
‘goodbye and good-day’
as we went rolling through.
Billboards and truckstops pass by the grievous angel,
And now I know just what I have to do
I love how that last line comes out of nowhere. It is so direct and big-souled.
And here is a verse from one of my favorite American songwriters, which happens to be stuck in my head this very moment:
‘I come to you in darkness–
I come to you and plead.
You know what I want. You know what I do–
Don’t do away with me.
Watching the face of the full moon, the moon flower blooms.
And that old yellow dog run across my yard’
I love the juxtaposition. I love the jankiness, because it is exactly like the unexpectedness of life. I love how he ‘switches’ from the tone of addressing someone he loves, to relating the reverie of watching the full moon at night in the country (as if we were not all addressing the ones we love, in our hearts, when we see the full moon on a quiet night.) I love how he presents the exigency of his heart laid bare before a lover. Hurley says and does all these things, and he presents them to you as smooth as a river stone. It’s a song. It’s beautiful, humble, direct, uttered words. Its designed to go straight to the bloodstream. Consequently, it’s with me all day, whenever I need it. That is to say, when I need the top of my head sawn off.
Photo credits: first image, of Grey Gersten and Jolie Holland, by Jana Weaver; second image, of Dr. Timothy Freeman and Jolie Holland, by Sara Burlingame