Thursday, 30 September 2010

A Treasure Map on My Hand

Like most people over 50, I stopped keeping up with what the young folk are listening to once I had heard the same old styles coming round for the second or third time, and especially since what I still think of as the "fresh, new" sounds of the late 70s recently hit their 30th anniversary. Isn't it past your bedtime, granddad?

But occasionally something shakes itself free from the all-encompassing pop susurration, and grabs my attention. It doesn't have to be something new, just new to me. Sometimes I hear something interesting playing on the PA as I stand in line to buy my sandwich at the Students' Union shop, or it might even be (whisper it) the audio-colouring to an advert I hear on the TV.

Most often it's a one off. I heard part of Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car" on the car radio one morning and had to write down and then Google a snatch of the lyrics to find out what it was. The album from which it is taken left me disappointed, but consistency over an entire album is a rare and neglected virtue, and this doesn't bother me -- I love the three-minute song as a pure art-form, and "Fast Car" is up there with "Waterloo Sunset" and dozens of other story-driven three-chord miracles.

Despite my highbrow inclinations, I have always been a poptastic hit spotter, and I am rarely wrong about a release's chart potential, even in those genres I never listen to myself. I can hear what is right about Whitney Houston's cover of "I Will Always Love You", for example, and what is wrong about Dolly Parton's original. I get the pop chills whenever I hear it.

But I don't really care about the charts. What really makes me sit up is hearing a stand-out song by an eccentric, clever, ironically passionate singer-songwriter with things to say. Of course, if you start your listening career with Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, and Paul Simon already at the height of their powers, it takes a lot of song to make you stir in your chair.

I came across Ani DiFranco playing "Hypnotized" when I was surfing the net looking for information on tenor guitars. Up popped this YouTube video of an attitudinous young woman performing live a strange song that, well, mesmerized me.* In another life, it was clear to me, she and I had endured a brief but oddly angry affair, like two confused people who have grabbed at straws but ending up grasping nettles. To let go or hold on, which would hurt least? It's not you, Ani, it's me. Actually, no, it is you.
So that's how you found me
Rain falling around me
Looking down at a worm
With a long way to go...
And the traffic was hissing by
I was homesick and I was high...
The song made me think of a series of real-life half-affairs in rainy places, in the confusing years before the Prof entered my life. I remembered endless conversations, huddled in the dark under the flyover near the old railway station, sheltering from the endless rain of 1970 sheeting down in the cinematic brightness of the streetlamps. And Heidelberg in 1971 -- a colossal thunderstorm that soaked me and my travelling companion and our rucksacks crossing a vast empty space on the way to the "Sleep-In" (do they still have Sleep-Ins in Europe?). Then a year later there was Salzburg with Norwegian hitchhiker Trinnie snug against my side, shoplifting fruit from beneath my waterproof poncho as we brushed past market stalls gleaming in the light summer rain.
I was surrounded by a language
In which I could say only "Hello"
And "Thank you very much",
But you spoke so I could understand
And I drew a treasure map on your hand.
That feeling of being surrounded by a language in which you can only smile and be polite is the rocket fuel of teenage anger and frustration, isn't it? How momentous it is, when someone just like you first steps over the barrier, listens to what you have to say, and talks to you in a language you can understand about the things that seem to matter. Even more so, if that person is also reaching across the divide of gender. If you are lucky in the kind and quality of these early encounters, as I have been, it will colour your whole subsequent life.

But sometimes -- in fact, quite often -- the most enduring of these encounters last just three minutes, rhyme, and have a catchy guitar hook and a middle eight. A good song heard at the right time is a friend for life. A good song heard at the right time can change, even save, your life. And if you think that sounds melodramatic, then you've not really been listening.

Addendum 1/10/10: I knew something was nagging at the back of my mind while I was writing this post, that would elegantly tie its various elements together: I remembered today what it was -- the song "I'm With You" by Avril Lavigne. Pure pop gold! I only heard it because my daughter liked it (she was 11 years old at the time) and I loved it immediately. If you don't know it, check it out here (good video, too). "I don't know who you are, but I -- I'm with you..."

* That DiFranco video has since disappeared, but if you don't know the song you can hear the (inferior) album version here, or watch a video of another excellent song from the same show here. This one is pretty good, too.


Martin H. said...

Around the same time I first heard Ani DiFranco (who didn't do 'it' for me), I was introduced to Michelle Shocked. Her 'Short Sharp Shocked' album (released in 1988 - I got a copy in the late 90s, from a colleague) was on continuous play, to and from work. Probably, due more to personal associations of the time, rather than the quality of the music, I still sense a little shiver when I play it.

I'm with you on your rating of 'Fast Car'.

Mike C. said...

Thanks for the reminder, Martin -- I keep meaning to check out Michelle Shocked (as I say, "new to me" will do).

What I need is a mathematician, who can work a way for me to check out the music, films and books I missed during the last 20 years, without missing out on the good things that emerge during the next 20 years...


Dave Leeke said...

Although I've not kept up with the Michelle Shocked phenomena (if there ever was one) the "SSS" should be more well-known than it is. Her first album having the notoriety of being the first album recorded on a Sony Walkman (as opposed to BS's "Nebraska" album - being the first Portastudio album)meant that great things were expected for her second album (cf "second album syndrome").

However, she delivered, and has gone on to become an elder within the music industry - one that continues to have integrity.

I'm not a huge Ani DiFranco fan but do have a grudging respect for both her and MS - probably as I grew up in a time that a decent singing voice was important and unable to feel that I could express myself as I feel I'm someone who can hardly "carry a tune in a bucket". They fitted in with their times.

"Anchorage" by MS should have been a huge hit.

She continues to be an inspiration and another living example of how the internet (and any other way of getting music out there to the people) continues to allow talented songwriters to have some form of career.

Oh and Pete Anderson's guitar work (and production) on "SSS" was phenomenal.

Oh, and by the way Mike, it isn't a mathematician you need but Hari Seldon from Asimov's "Foundation" trilogy.

Mike C. said...

"I grew up in a time that a decent singing voice was important" ...

Do you listen to "Loose Ends" on Radio 4 on Saturday evening, Dave? I can't decide whether (a) the musical turns they put on that show are booked out of a cruel sense of humour, precisely because THEY CAN'T FREAKIN' SING OR PLAY AN INSTRUMENT (and take themselves SO seriously), or (b) I've finally turned into my dad.

"it isn't a mathematician you need but Hari Seldon from Asimov's "Foundation" trilogy" ...

Got a phone number?


Mike C. said...

Just listened to "Anchorage" -- no, my hit-tastic antennae tell me that would never be a hit. The *hit* version of that approach and feel is "All I Wanna Do" by Sheryl Crow.

Trust me.


Dave Leeke said...

Yeah, but that WAS a hit, wasn't it?
Maybe I just march to that different drummer. . . but it is a great song.

And, apropos of nothing, but talking of drums, Richie Hayward's death this week was very sad.

Mike C. said...

I didn't know he'd died (the Web tells me he died in August, though). I adored the early, Lowell George Little Feat. They (plus Steely Dan) finally converted me to the virtues of American music...


Gustaf Erikson said...

If you haven't heard Aimee Mann, definitely check her out. She doesn't have any stand-out albums but I'd recommend "I'm with Stupid" from the early 90s.

Maybe she's a bit weak in the vocal department but her lyrics are top-notch.

Shawn Colvin is another favourite of mine.

Mike C. said...

Thanks, Gustaf, I'll check them both out (thank goodness for Spotify!)


Martyn Cornell said...

Tracy Chapman (or "Tracy Personperson" as we call her in these more PC times) had a well-recognised dip after that stunning first album, but the last three have been very good, and Let It Rain (2002) is, in my arrogant opinion, truly the rare bird of an album without even one duff track. Although Rolling Stone gave it only two stars, so your mileage may vary. But I've asked for "Say Hallelujah" to be played at my funeral:

"Have mercy!
It's a wonderful life!
Eternal rest for the weary –
Mourners party tonight."

Mike C. said...


Interesting, I'll check it out. One of these days I'm going to post on funeral music requests -- it's a curious last chance to set oneself apart from the mass...

As I posted a while back, a dear friend had "Box of Rain" (Grateful Dead) played at his memorial (I loathe the GD) and it was very moving. I'm torn between reducing everyone to helpless sobbing ("May You Never", perhaps) and kicking off a wild baccanal(whisky all round and the Pogues?). Maybe both...


Dave Leeke said...

Late posting, I know but Gustaf mentioned the sublime Aimee Mann - now she really IS the real deal. Fantastic live and a great singer and songwriter.

Nothing more to add.

Martyn Cornell said...

Without pre-empting any future post on funeral music requests (should indeed be a good one), Irish guy I knew who died far too early from cancer had arranged for a recording of the crowd at Lansdowne Road singing "The Fields of Athenry" to be played as the congregation left the mass. If there was a dry eye in the house, it didn't belong to me, or anyone else I could see.

Mike C. said...

As far as I can see, the only up side of dying young is that more people are likely to turn up for your funeral, and they are more likely to know who you actually were.

The scenario of a careful choice of music (made many years earlier) played to a half empty room of uncomprehending strangers is as near to a real life Chekhov story as you're likely to get.

It's a bit like retirement -- by the time you're 65 you've become the useless and cynical old git no-one wants to sit near at coffee time, and no-one is still employed who can remember what you were like when you were actually quite good.

"It's the being so cheerful as keeps me going, sir!"