LISTEN TO THIS and tell me if it makes me a sad person.
Something I love doing – which Laura tolerates – is when we’re together of an evening I’ll play a piece of music that just seems right for the mood of the moment. And then I’ll think of another that has some connection with it. It might be the title, or some phrase in the song links to another. Possibly the same person played guitar on both, or maybe there is a similarity of tone or melody, or maybe it’s some emotion in the song that prompts me to reach for another song which seems to carry the same feeling. Once I get going I can spend an hour or two playing one song after another, all connected in some way, at least in my mind. It’s a form of word association but with music.
Here’s an example. I could play “Youngstown” by Bruce Springsteen. For some reason, while its playing, I remember that another of my favourite Springsteen songs – “Tougher than the Rest” – was covered by Everything But the Girl on their acoustic album. So I play that. Tracey Thorn’s voice reminds me of the gorgeous vocal she did on the title track of Massive Attack’s Protection album, so that comes next. While that’s playing, I remember another Indie chanteuse, Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins sang sweetly and memorably on “Teardrop”, another Massive Attack song. As it happens, I choose not to play that. Not because I don’t want to hear it. (Because I do, oh I do.) But because I remember my favourite Elizabeth Fraser vocal; the version of “Song for the Siren” (which was in Part One of this funeral list – see June 14th). So I play that. The song was written by Tim Buckley, so next up is another of his songs, “Dolphins”, as played by Billy Bragg on 1991’s Don’t Try this at Home.
That Billy Bragg album is rich in possibilities. Johnny Marr plays guitar on it, so it opens up the way to any number of gorgeous Smiths songs (and normally – trust me – I need no excuse to go in that direction). But for some reason I also play the track “Cindy of a Thousand Lives”. The first line of this strange and unsettling song refers to “Blue Velvet America”. Think about David Lynch, who made the film Blue Velvet and I‘m on to the TV series Twin Peaks. So the next song I play is “Floating”, co-written by David Lynch as the theme tune to Twin Peaks and performed by Julie Cruise.
In a few songs I have made my way from the bitterness of Springsteen’s declining steel community in Pennsylvania to the scary dreamscapes of the theme music to a bizarre soap-cum-horror series set in a weird community in Washington State. Meanwhile, Laura lies on the sofa and sips her wine. Occasionally she greets the first notes of a song by saying something like, “I love this track.” But mostly she is happy to let it wash over her, just to take each piece of music as it comes and enjoy it for what it is.
Unlike me. As I listen to each song start, the links with other songs are already starting to run through my mind, as if each song is a piece of a much larger jigsaw and when I hear it I can see where the edges of one piece match with other pieces. As Billy Bragg sings “Dolphins”, it offers a lot of edges with other songs of his. I could go for Kirsty McColl’s version of his song “A New England”, or Paul Young singing “Man in the Iron Mask”. Or try this: Billy Bragg wrote the song “Levi Stubbs’ Tears” and Levi Stubbs was one of the singers in the Four Tops. This opens up the whole Four Tops catalogue. Or beyond that – given the way Tamla Motown used different writers on different artists’ records – there are edges which link up with hundreds of great Motown songs.
And all of this goes through my head for each song. Pity me. How do I ever get anything else done?
Anyway, mentioning the Four Tops takes me back to that list of songs to play at my funeral.
5. “Reach out I’ll be there” – Four Tops
I’m sure a lot of people would have this on their list of songs to leave behind, to say goodbye to their loved ones on their behalf. Mainly because of the words (”If you feel that you can’t go on…I’ll be there, with a love that will shelter you”, and so on.)
The song is so well known it barely needs describing. But the power of the obvious should never be underestimated in pop music. Nor should the power of emotion expressed without words. What makes this song for me is the raw edge of desperation in singer Levi Stubbs’ voice, and – best of all – the guttural “Ugh!” yelled by the backing singers at the start of the very first line, and again at the start of other verses, matched by the “hah!” that Stubbs lets out before the second chorus.
These guys didn’t write this song, but they sure meant it. And so do I. Those people who love me can hear this at my funeral and know that if I still had the power, every line would come from me.
“Just look over your shoulder…”
6. Blue – Lucinda Williams
This is basically just a couple of guitars, gently strummed and picked, with Williams’ aching and gentle singing over the top of them. Some people don’t like her singing. At times –and especially in this song – her voice seems to fall short of the note she was aiming for, and comes close to cracking. But if ever someone turned an apparent flaw to their advantage, this is it. You hardly need the words to know what she’s feeling. She could be singing this song in Polish and you would still know exactly what she meant. The shaky-sounding voice expresses perfectly the longing and loneliness at the heart of the song. “Go find a jukebox,” she sings, “and see what a quarter will do.” In her hands, it does a lot.
Mostly, I don’t want sad songs at my funeral. But somebody’s got to shed a tear or two. This is the song that will do it.
From the marvellous Blackheart Man album, on the surface this song glows with simple optimism, as Bunny Livingstone sings of a land ‘like heaven’, ‘across the sea’, where he can get breakfast from the trees and honey from bees and live happily with his loved one.
But an apparently straightforward song is for me given immense power by two things. The first is the unusual dynamic of the song. The verses are very simple, loping along on a relaxed backing of drums, bass and a child-like electric piano. But each line is sung twice, the first time slowly and gently, and then repeated at a higher pitch, with a hint of Wailer’s voice straining, despite the happiness of the lyrics. Then, just when you expect a shift back down, the song goes up a key and into a chorus that is really just another verse, but sung in that emotional falsetto, twisted up a further notch. The effect is similar to the Madonna song I listed last time (see 14 June). What lyrically might seem wide-eyed and soft-centred acquires an edge of desperation and sadness from the tone of Wailer’s voice.
That impression is strengthened as the next verse lurches into the second chorus, which is really just a fourth verse but one that spirals upwards on a circular synthesiser riff as the unease in Wailer’s voice leaks into the lyrics themselves. ’Oh what a time that will be,’ he sings, with all the joy of a man who has just realised that the only way he will reach his dreamland is by dying first. ‘We’ll count the stars up in the sky,’ he says, before finally, over the fade out, voicing the fear that has shadowed the song all the way through: ‘surely, we’ll never die.’
Where exactly does it lead, all this time and effort spent thinking about music? What is the point I‘m trying to make here? I guess it’s this. I constantly marvel at just how much there is to listen to, how much great and interesting music there is in the world. Sometimes the beauty of it all is a little too much. I listen to a song and find myself wanting to play all the other great songs which have a connection to it. But each one I choose suggests another bunch of links to another crowd of great songs. And each of those connects to many more. So many more that you just couldn’t keep track, you couldn’t sit down and play them all. You couldn’t possibly listen to all the songs you’d want to listen to if you started following the links between them.
That seems a little depressing sometimes. I wonder if there is time enough left in life to listen to all the music that ideally I’d like to listen to. There probably isn’t.
All of which leads on to other gloomy thoughts. I get to thinking about last times. It must be sad to know that you are doing something you love, or seeing or hearing something you love, for the very last time. But maybe it’s even sadder not to know, to have that final taste but not realise it is the last. That way the thing you love could slip away unnoticed.
It is usually easy enough to know that you are doing something for the first time. There are some first times that we all remember: the first time you kiss a girl or touch a teenage breast inside a teenage bra; the first time you have sex. You may not remember clearly the first time you rode a bike or heard the Sex Pistols. But at the time you would have known that you hadn’t done this before.
Maybe you don’t know what exactly was the first time you ate artichoke (as it happens, I do, but that’s another story). However, when you faced that globe, and cagily watched people around you peeling off the leaves but only eating a small part of them, you probably knew very well that this was a new experience.
It isn’t guaranteed to be that easy with the last time. The last time I ate artichoke was about two weeks ago. I have no specific plans to buy any but I expect I’ll eat one again within the next few months. Or maybe I won’t. What if I don’t get around to it over the next year? What if I didn’t eat artichoke at all now until I die unexpectedly (and tragically young, of course) in a year or so? True, if I died in a year’s time I would probably have more to regret than failing to eat artichoke recently. Even so, the point is that I would never know as I ate my last artichoke that it was in fact the last.
The same thing applies to music. (To be honest, the music worries me more than the artichokes.) There are so many fantastic songs around that you can’t listen to them as much as you want to. I look at my shelves of CDs and tapes and vinyl albums and catch sight of a Rolling Stones album cover. When was the last time I played Let It Bleed? Not in the last year or two. But just thinking about it now reminds me of that exhilarating choir which spirals up into the heavens on “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”. Suddenly I want to hear that soaring vocal chorus and the way the drums start hitting in front of the beat to speed the song on towards its end. I hardly ever play it these days. Maybe the last time I played that song was two or three years ago. What if I die before I play it again?
This in the list because the night belongs to lovers. Because it’s one of the few cases of Patti Smith getting it precisely right in the balance of drama and emotion, and of sadness and defiant lyricism. And because it’s also one of the even fewer examples of anyone improving a Bruce Springsteen song.
And finally because it makes me think of a time when music mattered so much to me, and buying a new single was an exciting event. When I bought this I was a student in Cambridge. One evening I was just finishing an essay assignment when my friends Paul and Jerry came round to drag me out to the pub. I had to deliver my essay to another college, across the city centre. I left Paul and Jerry in my room playing this single. I was away nearly half an hour and when I got back they were still playing it.
Because as Patti sings with that desperate urgency that drives this song, the night belongs to us. Once it did.
This is the unashamedly sentimental one. I’m not sure why a version of a Ralph McTell song by a woman from Texas should work so well, but it does.
I bought Nanci Griffith’s Other Voices, Other Rooms years ago in a second-hand shop in York. It has some strong memories associated with it. None of them features York.
The record became a favourite for me and Laura in our early days together. We were playing it a lot when we went away to Ireland for a few days. Laura was speaking at a conference in Dublin. Towards the end of the conference, there was an evening out in a pub on the outskirts of Dublin. A lot of beer was drunk, dinner was served and then there was music and dancing. The band offered to do requests and I went up to the stage and asked them to play “From Clare to Here”. It was the only song I liked that I thought they might play. The guitar player nodded appreciatively when I made the request, as though I‘d made a well-argued point in a debate. The band played the song, and for Laura and me it crystallised a perfect evening, always remembered for this song.
One of the functions of funerals must be to open the floodgates of grief, to help people break through that numbing shock and start to feel the pain. Only by feeling it can you start to deal with it. If I heard this song at Laura’s funeral I know what it would do to me. Assuming it would do the same to her, I leave it in this list as a last gift to her. Hear this and weep. Because no one could have loved you more than I did.
(To be concluded next week.)