Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Alphabet Soup: The Letter O

1. Overlap — Ani DiFranco
“I know there is strength in the differences between us, and I know there is comfort where we overlap.” I love this fantastic and quiet song about longing. Ani sings about the flirting dance two people do when at least one loves the other, yet neither can make a move. She feels as though she is reaching out more than the other person, and she sighs, “If you won’t give it to me, at least give me a better view.”

Come here
stand in front of the light
stand still
so I can see your silhouette
I hope
that you have got all night
cos I’m not done looking yet

That handful of lines rank up there in my mental library of all-time most beautiful choruses. I can feel that sense of needing, at the very least, to breathe in that other person, even if that’s all it will ever be. In that deep, gauzy part of my heart, I’ve felt this way, where the thoughts trickle out in a roundabout way until sometimes I had no other choice than to be direct, just to remove the unbearable weight of wondering from my chest. Over time, I kept that tally of all those little hints that made me believe that putting myself out there wouldn’t result in catastrophe, even if I expected nothing more than a response of “Of course I knew.” I’d think, of course, you had to have known how I’d watch you cross a room, how I would hang on every word. Sometimes, it works out in the end. I have had the good fortune of one of those times working out for the long run.

Sometimes it’s more complicated. Sometimes “you don’t feel the same,” and I’ve had no choice but to keep it to myself, maybe even halfway from myself. It’s the sort of feeling where your heart believes it is the only heart that has ever had to wall off a little part of itself, leaving just a tiny bit of light for the occasional look. My head knows that no experience is ever completely unique, and so I have no choice but to write about my thoughts in a roundabout way, to put it onto other people.

I build each one of my songs out of glass
so you can see me inside them, I suppose

Don’t mistake this for unhappiness. Consider it all one big mental tangle that I’ve reshuffled into something tangible, where it will continue to unravel and make peace with itself one word at a time. When this project is done mid-June, I’ve got a book to edit with the end goal of having it ready for other eyes to critique by the end of November, followed by a final polish. I’m filled with excitement and apprehension at the thought of getting it done — done for real. I’m going to get it right, and I have to get it right soon or it will just become one more unbearable weight. There I’ll be, all unsure of my skills, wondering what it all says about me, worrying yet again about one more misinterpretation. I’ll be wondering if I’m the only one who will ever get anything out of it, if it was all for naught.

“Overlap” fills me with all of these thoughts, where there is so much to say and yet only so much I want to come out in direct conversation. I love this song for getting a version of those thoughts so right. What happens to people when they don’t have another outlet for it all?

2. On Your Own — The Verve
More than once, I had a conversation where the other person thought I used the word ‘love’ too lightly. They thought of love only in the traditional, mutual lifelong commitment way. My argument was that it didn’t always happen that way, or rather, that it wasn’t only going to happen that way. That self-imposed, narrow definition left them bristling at the word, when my point was that there’s ‘love,’ there’s ‘in love,’ and then the whole range of feelings in between.

Tell me what you’ve seen,
Was it a dream?
Was I in it?

You can love a person for their greatness, a love from admiration. You can love a person but not want to be in the same room as them. You can love a person for the way they love you. You can love a person but not want to sleep with them. There’s the sort of love felt for a person that is as superficial as love for chocolate. There’s family love, friendly love and yes, that big and infatuated type of love. In this song, Richard Ashcroft sings,“All I want is someone who can fill the hole in this life I know.”

His point is that “in between life and death,” we all want someone to bear witness to our lives, to share in the whole process of trying to figure it all out. If that’s not love, the willingness to do that with another person, then I don’t know what is.

Tell me if it’s true
That I need you
You are changing

Hope mixes with disappointment, longing for possibility. The big loves don’t always remain permanent, and the hole left in their absence might not be filled in the same way again. The love in this song lies in the love of companionship, thinking that maybe if the other person doesn’t quite fit, they might eventually. If the person who used to fit that space in the heart changed and moved on, then there’s the hope that maybe the reverse can be true. I think that it usually doesn’t work out that way, but I guess by not trying, one would never know.

3. Oh My Sweet Carolina — Ryan Adams
In Missoula, Montana, on one of the odd triangular corners, sits a shop called Rockin’ Rudy’s. For a long time it was a great music shop with a side of interesting gifts. Now, the ratio of music to gifts is in favor of all those specialty soaps, t-shirts and toys, with most of the music crammed into the corner that used to house the jewelry. While the selection is still pretty good, especially for most music shops in Montana, I used to feel like I could find anything there — Bush and Oasis bootlegs, rare singles back when bands still released CD singles, that European import of a band without good US distribution, all of it. My dad, who was the type to have a subscriptions to unknown magazines about unknown folk musicians, could spend hours at the listening stations. Meanwhile, I’d have my thirty or so dollars I’d scrounged up, and I’d wander the rows of music. Scanning the names marked on white plastic dividers, I’d try to figure out the best use of my money and try to recall all those names I had trouble finding at home. My mom and brother would look around for a little while, but then get bored and sit outside while my dad and I continued our shopping. On one of those trips, I had listened to Whiskeytown’s Strangers Almanac on the way over, and I looked to see if they had any other albums. They did, but also written below their name on that divider: “See also Ryan Adams.” So I did.

Trying to find me something,
but I wasn’t sure just what
Funny how they say that some things never change

One of the best parts of a trip to Missoula was the moment where we’d be just climbing onto the interstate, winding around the hills on our way back home, headphones filling my ears with new music. If those hills on the approach filled me with anticipation for what might come, then the trip home was a revelation. On these drives, I heard my first Oasis b-sides, little bonuses adding to what I already loved. Hearing Ryan Adams’ first solo album felt like stumbling upon an even more personal version of what I already loved about Whiskeytown. Both felt like musical secrets, and they continued to feel that way until late 2001 when Ryan’s “New York” changed everything.

Up in here in the city,
feels like things are closing in
sunset’s just my light bulb burning out

Being from Montana, we get so used to being passed over or ignored that we start to feel like our own little secret. Missoula, a pocket of liberalism, is the opposite of conservative Billings, with places like Great Falls and Bozeman falling somewhere in the middle. Bad weather doesn’t phase us. Driving long distances, meaning more than 3 hours (yes, trips are measured in hours), to get what we want is no big deal. Yet, with no money to offer anyone and with opportunity forgetting that the fourth biggest state exists, people find themselves looking elsewhere. We start feeling the need to get out, to go somewhere where we don’t have to work so hard for entertainment and there’s the chance to earn more than six dollars an hour.

I live in Washington state now, and while I like it fine, I still find myself thinking about Missoula and how unfortunate it is that we can’t really afford to live there. It seemed easier to find someone up for conversation, easier to make friends. Also, I miss being closer to my mom. I know that absence distorts memory, but it’s always been the type of city for me. I know we did ok by moving, but every time we pass through Missoula, I think, “We used to be home by now.” While I also like the idea of living somewhere bigger, I still feel like two years in Missoula wasn’t enough. I don’t think I’ll ever feel like I’m “from” Washington.

4. Only the Lonely — Roy Orbison
My brother and I used to make gagging noises from the back seat of the car when my mom put on Roy Orbison. Like Little Women and other “classics” she would try to hand me, I rejected the songs in over-dramatic way because everyone knows that the second you hit late elementary school, your parents cease to be cool. (Yes, I fear for my future, the mother of two children says.) I even sang a parody called “Ugly Woman” with insightful lines like, “Ugly woman, don’t make me barf... Stay away from meeee!”

Of course, now I like Roy Orbison, but I still haven’t read Little Women. Sorry, mom.

How could I not like Roy Orbison for all my fondness for ‘big’ music? He had one of the biggest voices ever, and the few times I’ve heard some poor soul try and cover “Only the Lonely,” or one of his other songs, they inevitably come up short. Of course, that doesn’t keep untalented me from singing along, mangling the words and pretending I’m in tune. Isn’t there a rumor that even Elvis felt inadequate next to Roy Orbison’s voice?

Here’s the thing about liking Roy Orbison now after early years of protest — I still have yet to own anything by him. I don’t know why. I guess there are always other people who come to mind first, and maybe I’m too embarrassed to ask my mom where her Greatest Hits CD is. That’s really all I’m after, the greatest hits. I’ll still watch whenever I catch that black and white special plays on PBS, though some of that has to do with watching Bruce Springsteen. Even though I don’t have the song at my immediate disposal, it was still one of the first songs that popped in my head when I picked my favorites for the Letter O.

5. Outside — George Michael
When George Michael officially came out in the late 90s, I was surprised only in that I thought he had already, a thought I’m sure was far from unique. Maybe my age and location had something to do with it, but I had not paid much attention to him up until that point. Of course, I knew a lot of his songs — you were clearly living under a rock if you hadn’t heard “Freedom” or “Faith” — and Marlena liked him, but I didn’t give any thought to whether or not I liked the songs. Then “Outside” came out along with its singer, and who am I to resist a roller-disco/dance hall style song with a funny video? George Michael may not be the brightest for continuing to be caught doing ‘inappropriate’ things in public, but he certainly is resourceful enough to turn that late 90s incident into a hit song. Not only that, booking him for interviews to talk about/apologize for it gave him all the opportunity to promote his Greatest Hits double CD.

I have a funny picture of Kristen nuzzling that album at our friend Heather’s house. We listened to it a ton that year. Kristen and I still love a good disco-style dance beat, and it gives us a chance to ‘sing’ the instrumental portions. The line that made us all break out in song: “Service the community... but I already have, you see!” I find it almost impossible not to dance to this song. I may be dancing while typing right now.

I think George Michael is one of those artists that people have a hard time admitting that they like now, especially if it’s some of the Wham! stuff. He was considered cool in the 80s and then somewhere along the way, he faded from that huge popularity. When Limp Bizkit covered “Faith,” I think it made a lot a people feel okay in admitting they liked the song, but isn’t it horrible that it takes crap like Limp Bizkit to get some people to admit they like a pop song? That they may actually want to dance? George has a more limited career in the US now, but thankfully it’s him still around making music and not LB. The world is far, far better for it. Don’t be surprised if his latest collection of hits makes it into my music collection.

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