Monday, March 17, 2008

Alphabet Soup: The Letter J

1. Josephine — The Wallflowers
I like a name in a song title, and I’ve been known to lift a good name from a song for character use, even if the character does not exactly resemble the person named in the song. Call it a cheater method, but it’s not all divine inspiration, you know.

I also like the reverential song directed toward a woman. Don’t mistake this for the yearning to be the subject matter myself. I’ve had happy songs dedicated to or written for me, and while that was all very flattering, I’ve also been at the other end when the relationship goes sour. While being able to write about the beginning of love and sorting through the rubble at the end is beneficial and cathartic to the songwriter (and very satisfying for the listener), I’d rather not be personally involved. I get more warm and nostalgic feelings from hearing “Sara” by Jefferson Starship, and that song is on the deep end of cheesy. It goes back to keeping just enough personal distance between song and temporary relationships. I’m not about to let anyone who did not better my life (romantically or not) ruin a perfectly good song, myself included. When I’m at fault, I don’t need the punishment to extend to my musical collection.

No, when I say I like a reverential song for woman it is because women are fantastic, and it is fantastic when someone notices. We’re all flawed, but in a certain light, some women seem to rise above it all. “Josephine” is a song that gets that appreciation just right.

Josephine, you’re so good to me
I know it ain’t easy
Josephine, you’re so sweet
You must taste just like sugar
and tangerines

I end up spending a good deal of time contemplating how to best articulate the great qualities in the people I write about (fictional or otherwise), much in the same way I have tried to talk about the songs that I love. When it comes to real people, taking the task lightly does a disservice to everyone. To write reverentially about someone is to also reveal something about yourself. While I am an open book when asked, volunteering my adoration does not come without some trouble. The awe can be so close to my heart that to open it up to criticism is intimidating. Even now, I’m not sure what to say. Public displays of affection have never been my style, nor am I a public mourner. To that effect, I often wonder if I come off insincere or indifferent when the complete opposite is true.

Bringing Down the Horse is an album that I love, yet I managed to neglect owning it. So many of my friends had it when it first came out that it seemed ever present until one day I found myself thinking of the songs and no longer had immediate access. The Wallflowers have ended up as a tiny blip on the late 90s musical radar, but they had good songs, save for maybe their cover of “Heroes.” For someone who tried so hard to separate himself from his musical pedigree, Jakob Dylan had a hard time escaping comparisons to his father. Maybe if he hadn’t been the child of one of the greatest songwriters to ever live he would have had a better shot at longevity.

2. Just a Phase — Incubus
For all my yammering about not letting music get too attached to a specific person, Incubus’ album Morning View will be forever tied to when Tyson and I first started dating. This was our “Oh hey, you haven’t heard the new album? You should definitely come over and listen to it, ahem, wink-wink, nudge-nudge...” album, as many relationships that begin in college have. However, since we’re now coming up on six years married and have two children together, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to have some music attached. Not only was the music excellent, but we could bond over the dreaminess of singer Brandon Boyd, culminating in that fine balance of lusty, intelligent conversations. And then some making out. Lots of making out.

I don’t know that I’d say “Just a Phase” is one of my favorite songs on the album (J is a harder letter to fill), but it’s still an excellent one. Incubus is a band that has a lot of detractors, for one reason or another, and this song is a response to some of them, mainly those coming from bands who are not as good.

I know that I sound opinionated
maybe biased and quite possibly jaded
but sooner or later they’ll be throwing quarters at you on stage

Who are you and when will you be through?

If I’m remembering correctly, much of the song is directed at the singer from Creed. And although Incubus’ last few offerings have not been as great as some in the past, they’re still around and (blessedly) Creed is not. The song serves as a reminder that although there are plenty of annoying people out there, if you do your best to disregard them, eventually they will get what they deserve.

3. Jackie’s Strength — Tori Amos
Whenever I put on From the Choirgirl Hotel, the album from which “Jackie’s Strength” hails, I think about the year I was in our high school’s production of The Wiz. My friend Marlena had a hand in some of the choreography, though most of it came from a guy who thought he was a divine gift to the theater department because he’d once been in Cats. It was the first year we didn’t quite have ourselves organized enough to do our regular dance class. In fact, almost everyone who had been in our dance group the year before was involved with the musical. Marlena, Maureen and I were chorus members and because we had real dance experience, we were the saucy Poppies. Theresa played the Scarecrow, and I think Amanda may have been in the orchestra. Theresa was probably one of the biggest Tori fans I’ve ever met — She would half-jokingly say that because she was adopted, taking her age and Tori’s hazy whereabouts around the time she was born, that Tori Amos was her birth mother. The album following this one, To Venus and Back, came out on Theresa’s birthday while we were in Wiz rehearsals, only adding fuel to her theory. She and Marlena bonded over their love of Tori together.

We were all spiraling away from each other in small ways during that time, separate personal lives drawing us in and out of the connections we had. Teresa missed a few rehearsals and the director had Maureen learn the Scarecrow part just in case, I imagine causing friction between them. Marlena attended school just enough to be involved with the play. I had a tail bone injury that almost had the director sack me entirely. Being someone who had more ties to the community theater productions and not the school, we had no loyalty to each other, though I kept putting my face out there, trying to get the theater department to notice. The fact that I can’t remember if Amanda played in the orchestra bothers me because I’m only using logic (“Well, she was first chair viola, so...”) and not actual memory. Though I my friendship with Maureen and Theresa had only come about because of my friendship with Amanda and Marlena, we were not on the same orbit anymore, instead becoming different lines of existence that would intersect on occasion. We had boyfriends, we had other friends more on our orbital paths, and we all had our own set of troubles to work out. I started to miss those afternoons in the dance studio, but that’s the nature of friendship.

“Jackie’s Strength” has the same sense of melancholy nostalgia. Tori Amos relates Jackie Kennedy to overcoming personal struggles, finding balance in relationships, thinking back to different times in life that were at once wonderful and complicated.

So I turn myself inside out
in hope someone will see
make me laugh
say you know what you want
you said we were the real thing
so I show you some more and I learn
what black magic can do
make me laugh
say you know you can turn
me into the real thing
so I show you some more
and I learn

Whether we realize it or not, we’re constantly adjusting our presentation while desiring companionship, both friendly and romantic. In a way, friendship is romance. It’s a back and forth process of recognizing the admirable traits and wanting to be the best person for the other. And since romance is also a little about narcissism, friendship also sometimes revolves around the idea of “I like you because you have some of the best qualities I see in myself. Won’t you see them in me too?” Opposites may sometimes attract, but I find that sameness — more intersecting orbits — provides longevity.

“Jackie’s Strength” is a beautiful song filled with the slightly disjointed storytelling for which Tori Amos is known. Even when I’m not sure if she’s talking about herself or some complex metaphor tumbling from a character she’s created, I find her songwriting strength lies in making her mental fragments, seeming cohesive to her mind alone, feel personal to the listener.

4. Janie Jones — The Clash, Bush
Yet again I heard the cover before the original. Give me a break — I was 13 and just got my mitts on a Bush bootleg entitled Suck It and See. Despite the stupid name for the $20 CD, and despite the fact that the bootlegger decided to bleep out the curse words (Why title a CD something like that and yet bleep words?) I was thrilled to get the b-sides “Old” and “Broken TV.” This song came in near the end of the disc, introduced with “We’ll play a song we wrote a little while ago and gave away.” Of course, with my musical horizons not quite so broadened yet, I didn’t get the joke then.

The guitar riff that is half-circus theme, half-whatever the “Meow Mix” song comes from (I played it once in orchestra, but I can’t remember who did it now) is wonderful, chaotic punk rock mixed with steady drums, topped off with plenty of cymbals. The bass gets in a prominent rumble, and the whole thing is a lot of fun. The Bush cover stays pretty faithful to the original, though they bleed into “X-Girlfriend” at the end, which ends up working well.

Probably the best use of “Janie Jones” I’ve heard is in the Martin Scorsese/Nicolas Cage movie Bringing Out the Dead. The song plays over jumbled scenes of ambulance calls, showing the mix of insanity and weariness that comes from night after night of that type of intense employment, a funny riff on the line “He don’t like his boring job.” In the movie theater, my friend Kristen and I couldn’t help but quietly sing along.

5. Just Getting Older — Oasis
“Am I cracking up? Or just getting older?” Despite my relatively young age, the days where I think “Ah, screw it. I’m tired. All I want to do is have a drink and go to bed” can sometimes outnumber the days I don’t. While I don’t have a previous decade’s worth of wild and over-the-top behaviour tied to my public image like Noel Gallagher does, the surprise at one’s own exhaustion is something to which I relate.

It’s nine o’clock
I’m getting tired
I’m sick of all my records and clothes I bought today

Lines like that probably would not have crossed Noel’s mind in the 90s, or if they did, he would be less likely to commit them to song. After years of running around meeting a million people, never sleeping, always having to be go-go-going and doing something, now all of the sudden everyone has children, divorce settlements and forty years on Earth approaching. More and more, his songwriting has focused on the idea of lying back and not necessarily be required to do anything. The songs have an attitude of “Feck it, if I want to be left alone for an evening, then I’m damn well allowed by now, aren’t I?”

What’s funny about a song so focused on age dialing down the energy, it isn’t just a “man and acoustic guitar” production. Near the one minute mark, it progresses from something simple to backing music that almost sounds like a choir, and the sound grows bigger and more defiant from there.

And I bet that this is how life
turns out when you’re finally grown
And you know if this is my life
I’ll sit around all day and moan

The chances of Noel Gallagher slipping into completely idle retirement are slim, I’m sure, but the focus of life as a musician has changed. The extra-curricular stuff holds less importance. I read an interview with him around the time Stop the Clocks came out, discussing all the lifetime achievement- type awards he and the band were receiving that year, where he said, “We’ll let everyone kiss our asses for a little while, and then we’ll get back to work.”

As entertaining as some of their “off our heads” moments were a decade ago, as I’ve grown up, I’m glad they have as well, to a certain degree. It would be too heartbreaking to have my favorite band cease to exist because they tried too hard to sustain the type of craziness that’s only fun for so long. Maybe that makes me (or them) sound boring, but I don’t need my favorite bands to be like Pete Doherty. Anyone who pays any attention to Oasis knows that they’re nowhere near the danger of slipping into, what my interweb-friend Katy likes to call, “yoga and lentils” territory. The rock n roll attitude remains alive, though occasionally it would like the night off.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. my favorite line from Just a Phase is:
    "I think temporaryism, has been the black plague and Jesus of our age."
    what a great song to explain how much crap you have to dig through in society to find the gems.

  3. Hey Sara,

    I don't think I played in any pit orchestra's until college...I could be wrong though. Thanks for the nice words, I'm flattered!
    I am enjoying your page very much.