The other day I was having lunch with a friend and, in something of a non sequitur, she commented on the fact that I tend to hang out in environments where I am exposed to either books or music. I admitted that this was true, and explained that escape into stories and songs were the best things I could imagine, and that I consider myself incredibly fortunate that I can spend my life around people who appreciate these things as much as I do.
She remarked that she had always found my relationship with Nigel- my oldest friend and the former owner of a much-missed store that sold vinyl and catered to musical tastes somewhat outside of most of what passes for music these days- a little puzzling at times. I suppose to someone unaware of our history the relationship does seem a little odd. He is the consummate ‘cool dude’ and I am more, um, bookish, for lack of a better term. She went on to say that she thinks she is starting to get it though.
“You love the songs that tell stories. It’s no different from your examination of mythological texts or legendary traditions. The songs you love are the ones that tell the stories- that present a slice of time and place. You’re not into the stuff that just claims a good beat- or even intricate musicianship- it’s all about the lyrics, and the stories they tell.”
Since this was also completely true, I agreed with her assessment. While I can appreciate a great dance tune, and the technical beauty of Bach is not lost on me, for a song to really grab hold of my soul it has to tell some kind of a story. Popular music is yet another expression of our need to communicate those intangibles that our ancestors wove into the stories that they told, the images and themes that helped explain the unexplainable.
“I totally get that,” she continued. “I’m all about the lyrics too. There aren’t very many contemporary bands that can hold my attention if the words aren’t engaging in some way.”
I commented that songs can have the same effect, and often work to the same purpose, as myths do. They help us cope with the rougher stuff life can throw at us and make us feel as if we aren’t alone in feeling what we’re feeling at any given point in time.
Elton John’s ode to sad songs is a perfect, self-aware, example of the effect of a clever and nuanced lyric- with a snappy tune backing it up. Always makes me want to dance- and I am definitely not a dancer.
CBC Writes recently ran a challenge- a competition asking entrants to write about life-changing songs. I asked her if she had such a song- or perhaps many, since I knew that her music collection was extensive and diverse.
“There are likely more than a few, if I really think about it. So many songs evoke a particular time and place in my life, and many of those times and places caused change or growth or revelation of some kind. But straight off the cuff? There is one that springs to mind right away. It still causes an atavistic response when I hear it. The feelings are inescapable.”
She paused, and looked around as if afraid of being overheard. Songs, and the things they can do to us, are very personal experiences.
“Romeo and Juliet by Dire Straits. Do you know it?”
I do, and told her so. It’s a beautiful song, and one that I’ve always appreciated- as much for its poignancy as for the way it plays with the themes borrowed from Mr. Shakespeare and more contemporary popular culture and mores.
“It’s one of those songs that I have probably heard in passing many times over the years- it IS Dire Straits after all- but I honestly hadn’t paid it much mind until a couple of years ago. A friend and I were sitting out on my patio one night- it had to have been around about three in the morning- we’d had a few beers and had been talking all night, and, as often happened in our conversations, the subject came around to music and the whole concept of ‘desert island discs.’ Which songs would you have with you if they were the only songs that you’d hear for the rest of time. I had given him a book for his birthday in which you could record various desert island play lists, and I asked if he had started filling them in.”
“He started talking about Dire Straits- and hanging out as a teenager listening to Brothers in Arms- and how affecting this one song was. He quoted some of the lyrics, and I told him that I’d have to give it a listen- I had the album after all. Apparently The Killers had recently covered the song and hearing their version had taken him back to those teen years.”
“A couple of days later there was an email with a link to The Killers’ version, complete with some commentary about why they covered that song- including their hope that they would introduce a new generation to the wonder of Dire Straits. I watched it over and over while hanging out in my office waiting for students to show up with questions. It punched me right in the heart.”
“When I got home, I pulled out the Dire Straits version and I was almost dumbfounded by how much it made me want to roll up into a ball and cry with the heartbreak of it all. Everyone knows the story of Romeo and Juliet, but here was a version that ended up unrequited for very different reasons- ones that were about bad timing and missed opportunities. It struck very close to the bone.”
“But more importantly, once the initial overwhelming angst had passed, it provided some perspective on a number of things I had been wrestling with for months. It’s strange how one song can do that, but this one did. Changed the course of a number of things in my life, actually.”
Music, like myth, speaks to places within us that often don’t get to see the light of day in the ordinary scheme of things. Those issues- love, loss, pain, death- that we tend to suppress as we attempt to make it through the days and nights of responsibility, paying the bills and remaining engaged with our family and friends and in the larger community.
Occasionally a song can bring those questions or concerns out of the darkness and let us know that others have felt exactly the same way. I’ve said it repeatedly – our stories connect us in ways we don’t even acknowledge on a conscious level. Such stories- and stories-in-song- emphasize this commonality of humanity.
Stories and songs advise and enrich us in profound, sometimes life-changing, ways. Add some cathartic release- through tears or through just getting down and dancing it out- and you can begin to understand why I choose to spend my life surrounded by their wisdom.