With the announcement of the awarding of the Medal of Freedom to James Taylor, among others, we think of the difference between song lyrics and, well, lyrics. The difference, that is, between pop song lyrics and lyrical poetry.
It isn’t what she’s got to say but how she thinks and where she’s been.
To me, the words are nice, the way they sound.
I like to hear them best that way, it doesn’t much matter what they mean.
She says them mostly just to calm me down.
No, it doesn’t much matter what these words say, it’s Taylor’s mellifluous baritone that calms us down and that we appreciate. He could be humming diddly-piddly, and we’d still like the results.
It’s unfair, of course, to judge a pop singer mostly by the quality of his lyrics. And in truth, Taylor’s lyrics are not always piffle and not always bad. But what passes for poetry, or song, in the popular mind is not what poetry, and song, are capable of.
I was thinking of this theme the other day, humming a Gershwin love song (“How Long Has This Been Going On?”):
Oh, I feel that I could melt;
Into Heaven I’m hurled!
I know how Columbus felt,
Finding another world.
Again, it’s not mainly the lyrics we are hooked by, though gods know Ira Gershwin could spin out some very clever words (the old classical New York jazz standards that Woody Allen loves). It’s George Gershwin’s music, as sung by greats like Ella Fitzgerald, that mesmerizes us and brings us back, again and again, to tunes that summarize and transcend their era.
And then, while I was humming the Gershwins, Keats’ song popped into my head — the corresponding and concluding lines about discovery in his sonnet “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer.” And he’s talking here about discovering Homer through an English translation!
Imagine writing about reading as if it were an act of heroic discovery, not pain, not drudgery, the way too many kids today, in the pop-music-saturated world, think about reading. To approach a text, for gods’ sakes, “with a wild surmise”! To look each other in the eyes, not like lovers in a pop song but like conquistadores, who before they arrived here, at the summit of discovery, had no idea in the world that such a world existed.
Last night my wife Jennifer and I went to a jazz concert at the Walton Arts Center. As host Robert Ginsburg pointed out, we could tell everyone afterwards that we had been onstage with the Anat Cohen Quartet: during the remodeling of the intimate Starr Theater, concerts are being held on the stage of the main auditorium. The band plays at the front of the stage, and the audience is seated behind them, stage rear, both on risers and at cabaret tables.
Jen and I had one of these tables, and were just a few feet in front of the band leader, Anat Cohen, an Israeli woman who played jazz clarinet with a verve and vivacity that drove away any blues we might’ve come with in our baggage. Pretty soon Jen and I, and most of the crowd, I think, were bopping in our seats as the group banged out — no, make that explored — one theme and then another. She was particularly impressive, swaying and hopping, calling out to her band, on a Brazilian number called “The Roses Do Not Speak,” about a lost or dead love, delving into dark notes and then essaying high and breaking wails as if, no, the clarinet could not speak, either, but Cohen would try, damn it, and then the trying burst into flame, as it were, and transcendence came, the joy and understanding beyond words.
Cohen’s pianist Jason Lindner was especially impressive, playing, often simultaneously, the hall’s Steinway grand piano and his Rhodes keyboard. This multi-tasking produced a delicious effect, the bass played on the piano and a drumming, insistent, repetitive melody, or rhythm, on the electronic keyboard. Lindner also reached into the Steinway, at times, and stopped the strings with one hand while he played a muted, or dulled, tune with the other.
Cohen played about 90 minutes, a good energetic first set, in front of this on-stage audience maybe 60% of capacity. Then she sold CDs and signed autographs, and readied herself for the second set.
After the first set Jen and I went across the street to the Cork & Keg, a wine / beer bar that also serves a few snacks. We enjoyed a few Naked Porters, by Bentonville Brewing, and watched the end of the Razorbacks’ game. When we came in, the Hogs were up 42-31, but they ended up losing, as you might know, by one lousy point, 51-50, when a last minute field goal, a chip shot really, was blocked.
The stadium was full to capacity, unlike the music hall — 80,000 fans screaming, moaning, and turning away, most of them, in depression and defeat. We had lost! We, who derive our identity from these athlete mercenaries awarded scholarships to play for us and represent us in our smallness, insignificance, anonymity. We, who have delegated the task of identity to these athletes, gifted athletes if not scholars, delegated the task of representing the body, anyway, never mind the intellect or soul.
The body, we know, in this sedentary society, this office-based economy, is alienated. It sits there, eight or ten hours a day, at a desk, at a computer, typing away — so much for exercise! Chained to the desk, shackled to necessity! And then, turned loose at the end of the day, it plops on the couch and watches TV! It parties on the weekends, drinking beer and wine, smoking dope! It twitches and feels its afferents and efferents trying to get it together!
(Some of us, it’s true, may use the weekends, even the weekdays if we’re retired as I am, to exercise, to bike, or hike, or swim, you name it, to go to the gym, to do push-ups and chin-ups, to run, to skate, to fly! And, oh sure, let’s not forget, to drink beer!)
Hey, I was rooting with the rest of the Hog fans. A damn shame they lost. There was just no stopping Mississippi State, it appears, which ran up and down the field at will behind a strong-armed and strong-running quarterback. There was, however, stopping Arkansas’s last-minute field goal attempt, as one of our offensive linemen was turned inside out by a State defender, who leaped and blocked the field goal.
Alas, we lost. They say we lost.
I say, rather, we all enjoyed a good tight game, and if footballs don’t talk any more than roses, can you blame them? You might want to try, instead, a jazz clarinet, an inspired piano, crashing drums, twanging bass. Man, Ms. Cohen’s group was humming last night, and she wasn’t playing anyone but her audience. We were all in the same lineup, and we won just as much as she did.
Today the Washington Post is running portraits of the victims of the massacre last weekend in Paris. Beside each name, usually matched with a photo, is a stifled litany of these young people’s accomplishments and promise (the big majority of victims were in their 20s and 30s):
Alban Denuit, 32, a French sculptor and Ph.D.
Amine Ibnolmobarak, 32, an architect and teacher of architecture, “the quintessential young Muslim intellectual”
Anna Liefrig, 24, a graphic designer, “a cheerful and brilliant young woman”
Djamila Houd, 41, who worked in the fashion industry
Elodie Breuil, 23, a design student who’d marched in the Charlie Hebdo rallies last January
Fanny Minot, 29, an editor at a TV show who “just loved life”
Kheireddine Sahbi, 29, an Algerian-born “virtuoso violinist … involved in all forms of traditional music”
And the list, like others lists before it, goes on and on.
So many young lives snuffed out, so inexplicably.
Unless we accept as an explanation the fear and hatred of a paranoid religious ideology that can not tolerate any deviance whatsoever.
Deviance from its own deviance, that is.
No love of the things of this earth, its earthly pleasures, its wine (swirled in the bowl), women (uncovered), song (uncensored).
How easy, then, to pick up a gun and fire indiscriminately into a crowd?
An AK-47, say, which is takes how long to learn to play, compared with the violin that Ms Sahbi mastered?
With Mr Denuit’s sculptor’s chisel and hammer?
With the years of study and dedication that the big majority of victims had put into their careers and contributed to society?
Never mind all that, the terrorists would say. You infidels. You dogs. Now you shall die.
If ISIS is in fact looking for an end-time game, an apocalyptic battle in Syria, they may soon have their hands full, as the Western powers gather for a showdown. And if this battle doesn’t materialize, so what? The ignorant and violent will have their day again, shedding blood, which is so much easier to do that learning sculpture, or design, or words, or loving your fellow man despite all differences.
We’ve all been attuned to mass killings in the US lately. The names James Eagan Holmes, Christopher Sean Harper-Mercer, Dylann Storm Roof, Aaron Alexis, John Zawahri, and Adam Lanza may not exactly roll off the tongue. In fact, we may prefer to entomb them in oblivion and not resurrect them at all. But whether we remember them or not, they are there, in oblivion and latency also.
The mass killings in Paris this weekend only serve to remind us that terror exists on many fronts, geographical, psychological, and ideological.
Terror begins at home, in the minds of each of us individually, and the more we tolerate violence and promote it in our own lives the more we promote it everywhere, consciously or not.
I’ve been researching the mind of the mass murderer and finding all sorts of fascinating things. From Psychology Today to Freudian treatises, students of this problem have tried to descry what makes a mass murderer a mass murderer.
One illuminating article, by James L Knoll IV, MD, suggests that the mass murderer, or “pseudocommando[,] is driven by strong feelings of anger and resentment, flowing from beliefs about being persecuted or grossly mistreated. He views himself as carrying out a highly personal agenda of payback. Some mass murderers take special steps to send a final communication to the public or news media….”
These communications may be among the most interesting phenomena in connection with the commandos, for they reveal their unreal sense of grievance and despair. The world has wronged them — them and their narcissistic egos. And now comes payback time, when they will be revealed in their full glory and true potency.
Isn’t this same thing happening, on a larger, ideological scale in the Middle East? Islamists, who have been told from birth that Islam is the one true religion, the only way of making sense of the world, are assaulted on all sides by signs of the progress of the West. The vaunted West with our material superiority, our secular values, our libidinal and other pleasures on full display in the media. (Our women, our whiskey, our song.)
Adam Gopnik, in a piece in The New Yorker, attributes the attack on Paris especially to radical Islamists’ desire to attack our capital of pleasure. An ISIS communique boasts, “Targeting the capital of prostitution and obscenity . . . Paris shook under [the attackers’] feet, and its streets were tight upon them.”
How dare they enjoy themselves, these white young men and women while we sit back in the shadows of our ideology and stew? We don’t exist, in comparison. We are nothing. Nothing if not nihilists. We kill, and only then and therefore, in the potency of destruction, we are.
To return to Dr. Knoll, the mass murderer experiences “revenge fantasies … inflexible and persistent because they provide desperately needed sustenance to his self-esteem. He is able to feel better by gaining a sense of (pseudo) power and control by ruminating on, and finally planning out his vengeance….. fantasies may lead the avenger to ‘experience pleasure at imagining the suffering of the target and pride at being on the side of some spiritual primal justice.’”
Yes, he who in the face of Western pleasure willy-nilly suffers anhedonia is able to achieve pleasure — indeed, a kind of orgasm of meaning and potency — only in the death of those he kills and, since he too is likely to perish, in his own death.
Individual and ideological mass murderers merge in this portrait. Whether a failure by personal fault or ideology, or both, the murderer is impotent … until, he thinks, he kills.
In Mexico, where my wife and I were vacationing, the girls and young women know how to pack it in and wrap it around.
You can see the fashion cues in the mannequins at the stores, out on the sidewalk, stuffed into tight jeans, the zippers sometimes not zipped up all the way. What the hell, it’s a semi-tropical if Catholic country, and the girls aren’t walking like virgins or saints down church aisles. They are strutting their stuff, if they got it, and not shy about it either.
One consequence of this strutting, of course, is early pregnancy and poverty. You see many young girls either pregnant or with babes in arms or tow, or both. Combine this sad fact with the begging vendors on all sides, people without much education out on the streets hawking wares of all kinds — food, clothes, phones, flashlights, bird whistles, glass stirring sticks, bootleg CDs and movies, you name it — and you’ll get some inkling of how quickly things ripen and then rot in Mexico, how rapidly possibility runs into impassivity.
One day, about a week ago, in Guadalajara, the second biggest city in Mexico — terribly crowded and polluted too — Jen and I visited a couple of museums and then, about noon, sat down in an outside restaurant on a square.
When I entered the restaurant — there are metal rails all around, defining the space — I noticed, directly in my path, a gorgeous young girl, who couldn’t have been more than 18 or 20, sitting with a couple of old folks, that is, about my age and Jen’s. I looked at the girl with obvious interest, and she looked straight back, unblinking.
We took a table next to that where the girl and her party were sitting, and had a beer and snack.
When we left, I looked at her again, helplessly, with obvious interest, and she stared at me as boldly and unwaveringly as any woman has ever looked at me. (Back in the day, women would look at me, you see. But we needn’t go into that at this time. ) The girl swiveled her head and stared at me as if, well, I don’t know. As if I were the second coming of Christ? Or Satan on a stick? Or her last chance at getting out of that life of limited education and income?
As if to say, Hey, old gringo, get me out of here?
As it to say, What the hell you staring at me like that for?
As if to say, Now where if anywhere does it go from here?
You’re browsing through a second hand bookstore,
And you see her in non-fiction V through Y.
She looks up from World War II,
And then you catch her catching you catching her eye …
Of course, there are a thousand other possibilities that lie behind that glance. What do I know? I’m just an old gringo with all the usual old boys’ habits and longings. I know, as you do, that life is short, and sweet, and fleeting. I know that in a tropical, or subtropical, clime, you do as the Romans, or the Tapatios, do (as Guadalajarans call themselves). You relax, expand, look around, and sigh. You go on with your life, and it takes you where it will.
And you think about
The people that you never get to love,
The poem you intended to begin.
The saddest words that anyone has ever said are
“Lord, what might have been.”
But no one said you get to win.
Now my dear wife Jennifer, who’s been my bride for 90 years, I joked to people in Mexico, says that the girl was obviously mentally defective, perhaps one of those Down’s Syndrome people who don’t look like Down’s Syndrome people. Why else, she reasoned, would a beautiful young girl look at a geezer like me?
No one said you get to win, all right — except what you’ve already won, like your spouse, who, if she’s like mine, is fine, and took some doing. Or the poem you not only intended to write, but did.