Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Alphabet Soup: The Letter S

1. Songbird — Fleetwood Mac
Christine McVie and I share a birthday, July 12th, forty years apart. I always preferred her over Stevie Nicks, and discovering our shared fact made it seem all the more meant to be. I like Stevie plenty, but Christine always seemed more straightforward, less wrapped up in the theoretical. Her songs remain in her immediate feelings at the time of writing, and I prefer that over Stevie’s sometimes forced storytelling. Christine talks about herself; Stevie talks about herself while also pretending to be someone else. Or maybe Stevie really is all those characters in one, I don’t know. I do know that I identify more with Christine’s vulnerability, and the first time I heard “Songbird,” I had to stop what I was doing and listen. I had never desired the ability to play piano more in my life, knowing it would be one more way to get inside the song, to feel it as it was meant to be felt. Hearing “Silver Spring” on the radio may have turned my attention to the band, but Christine’s voice made me stay. I’m not sure she gets enough credit for how much she added to the band.

When I first started listening to Fleetwood Mac, I did not have any of the music myself. My dad’s Greatest Hits CD disappeared into my room for a little while, but most of their music that he owned was on vinyl and some of that was dubbed onto cassette. The cassettes, unused by him 90% of the time, disappeared into my room with the understanding that I would not take them out into my car. The newer stereo in my room could be trusted, but inserting an old cassette into the tape player of an old car really rolled the dice on whether or not it would eject intact.

After binging on the self-titled album, Rumours, Tusk and Mystery to Me, I made my own mixes. I had a cassette that was half Christine, half Stevie. (At the time, I underappreciated Lindsey Buckingham, but now he’s the one making the most interesting music.) I played the Christine side more often, and every time “Songbird” came on, I still paused to listen:

To you, I would give the world
To you, I’ll never be cold
Cos I feel that when I’m with you, it’s all right
I know it’s right.


Christine wrote the song for Mick Fleetwood, a man battling all sorts of personal issues at the time, but it came to represent the hope that they could all overcome their troubles. Playing the song as a set-closer, Christine has said that she found it impossible not to cry each time.

And I wish you all the love in the world
But most of all, I wish it from myself.


What I like about Christine’s songwriting is the mix of melancholy and optimism. Every time her heart is broken, I can feel it, and every time she is swept up in new romance, I remember my own experiences. She’s very real, aware of her weaknesses and above all, not afraid to devote herself to another person.

2. Swallowed — Bush
From the moment I heard “Warm sun, feed me up...” I felt like a new person. I made the transition from R&B-listening middle schooler to the Q Magazine reading, rock history learning, obsessive connoisseur of the music I still love today.

I never paid attention to Bush when Sixteen Stone’s videos were plastered all over MTV. I only had a loose idea that Bush was a rock band with a singer who had brown curly hair, and that was about it. One night, I turned on Saturday Night Live. Something within me knew that Bush should register on my radar and without knowing why, I pressed ‘Record’ on my VCR, marking the moment they became an indispensable part of my life. That singer with curly brown hair became who he really was — Gavin Rossdale, the one whose face would cover my walls, the one whose face I would analyze and remember every line and eyelash. I was, as they say, a teenager in love. Despite my girlhood obsession with him in particular, I still maintain that the music won me over first. Surely great music makes its performers all the more attractive, right? I know, I know. Gavin can stop traffic without a band, but I wouldn’t have known who he was without the songs.

After I saw them play on SNL, I still had a feast of new interviews paired with older videos to consume. Between 120 Minutes, KROQ Acoustic Christmas and all the magazine promotion that comes with a new album, my VCR worked overtime and my bedroom began a transformation. I needed as much photos and information about the band as I could get. Whether or not a guy liked Bush became a deal-maker in high school relationships. I actually said to one guy before I agreed to go out with him, “I just need to know one thing. Do you like Bush and Oasis? Because you’ll be hearing them a lot.” He told me that he thought they were okay (classic rock fan, that one), and the answer was good enough for me. I just don’t have time for someone who is going to tease me about my very favorite things.

If I needed any convincing that Tyson and I were meant to be, hearing that Bush’s Deconstructed (an album nobody but the most devoted buy) was the very first CD he owned sealed the deal. Also, he liked Gavin almost as much as I did. Telling me all that was worlds better than “They’re okay.”

“Swallowed,” since I’m in the habit of ranking things, is my third favorite Bush song, after “Glycerine” and “Bonedriven.” It’s a great rock song, with big guitars punctuated at the right times. It’s easy to sing along, even with the abundance of minor notes. “I’m with everyone and yet not” may as well be theme of my life. “Just wanted to be myself,” I’ve often thought during the most lonely of moments, when being myself felt like it came at the expense of connecting to other people. During the times I’ve felt without a best friend, without a person who might ring me on a whim, I would wonder how people fell into each other without effort. Maybe I had above average self-esteem for a teenage girl, but the feeling that I didn’t have a partner in it all could really shake that confidence. I still feel a bit disconnected sometimes, but often that’s flecks of the past rising to the surface.

Though I did not pick up on all the specifics when I was thirteen, I realize “Swallowed” has Gavin singing about being high, wondering what he’s doing with himself: “Hey you said you would love to try some/ Hey you said you would love to die some.” He feels alienated, his poor decisions made in an effort to experience the opposite. “Gotta get away from here” — The song is the desire to move from the past, but without an idea of how. It is midway through the rubble, and it wonders if optimism is too much to ask.

3. Slide Away— Oasis
Some nights, I have dreams where I am able to have conversations that never had a chance to begin or have been too scary to initiate in my waking life. I dream of the people who have impacted me in a big way, whom I have loved in ways both overlapping and independent of one another. I am brave, I am reverential and when I hear all the answers I need to hear, it is heartbreaking when I open my eyes. Some nights, the dreams are too real.

I dream of you
and all the things you say.
I wonder where you are now.


I can expect “Live Forever” to make the set list when I see Oasis this August, but if “Slide Away” or “Step Out” make the cut, I may die of happiness. Or further die of happiness, if that’s possible. If Noel sings “Slide Away,” they may have to scoop me from the floor. Liam’s voice on the studio version is pure, full of young and romantic idealism. “This one’s for all the girls,” he likes to say. Coming from Noel, the lyrics are more than a declaration. They are almost pleading, “Please, please tell me you feel as strongly as I do.” No matter the version, this may be one of the best love songs ever. Ever.

Hold me down
All the world’s asleep
I need you now
You got me on my knees
And I dream of you
and the thought of growing old


In a way, this project has been nothing but a glorified love letter to a handful of people. Maybe a couple of them I’ve never met, maybe a couple I’m never going to see again and then there are the spaces between. There are hundreds of songs that ask “Do you think of me as I think of you?” and this song gets it so right that sometimes I’m only brave enough to sing along. Some days, I get it right and say what I can.

Now that you’re mine
we’ll find a way of chasing the sun
Let me be the one that shines with you
In the morning, I don’t know what to do
We’re two of a kind
We’ll find a way to do what we’ve done


I spend thousands and thousands of words in my (un-edited) book trying to articulate what can happen when all we want in the world comes at the expense of something else, and the attempt to work for a balance between the two. What happens when we put ourselves out there? What happens when the one person who believes in you the most makes everyone else lose faith? I am interested in perseverance, the balance between fate and control, and how love doesn’t always happen in the way that is most convenient.

Some days, I see faces on the streets that, out of the corner of my eye, make me believe. For one moment, my heart stops and I wonder what I will say. One more chance at conversation. One more chance to connect. The faces come closer and my eyes adjust, and I see they are not who I hoped. Some days, I wonder if I’ve constructed glossy memories. I wonder if I’ve got it all wrong.

I don’t know, I don’t care
All I know is that you can take me there
Take me there.


4. Seven Day Mile — The Frames
Everyone expected me to love college. I would go off to my classes, learn all the great and necessary things and then after four years, I would flap my little wings onto bigger things. I lasted a year, and I say it was partially a money issue. While that’s true, there’s much I could have done to remedy that. I also say that there was no point in spending a ton of money and time on a creative writing degree when I could just as easily write and find a critique group on my own. That’s also true. However, the third reason, that I don’t often get into, is that something about college didn’t feel right. I felt somewhat claustrophobic, disconnected and more anxious than I already tend to be. I don’t know what brought it on — an ineffectual therapist managed to narrow it down to somewhere in the vicinity of ‘expectation’ — but I just couldn’t get myself motivated to buckle down and finish. I just couldn’t be arsed, as they say.

It’s a threat that’s real enough
We can burn this bridge or stay here


The Frames started to work their way into my brain, as I grabbed songs where I could through downloads. The purchased albums would come into the collection eventually, but for awhile I had only a handful of Dance the Devil songs on my laptop. They seemed to follow me through what I could refer to as my Mysteries of Pittsburgh period.

The unfortunate byproduct to internal turmoil is that it extends to poor relationship choices. While I could have handled the end of one relationship better (namely, by not starting another while still in it), I tend to think of it as a learning period, with faults on both sides. That excuses nothing, but I’m not sure I’d still value the same things in a relationship had I not gone through it.

One morning, in a fit of sudden forced creativity, I tried to cobble together the ending to a short story I had due that afternoon. Wrapped in my green fleece jacket (that’s a story in itself) and cursing my procrastination, I sat on the couch of the guy I hadn’t been seeing long. He’d gone to work, and the place still smelled of peanut chicken curry and peach sorbet from dinner the night before. I had the Frames playing and playing, the same few song over and over. I had roughly four hours to finish and print out enough copies for everyone. It was the last day of class before we left for Thanksgiving break.

Well this might take awhile to figure out now
So don’t you rush it, hold your head up high
right through the doubt now
cos it’s just a matter of time, you’ve been running so fast


It was raining when I left and walked the few blocks back to my room, the air filled with a mix of wet leaves and cigarettes. My roommate had already left for class. We didn’t intersect often. I got to work printing twenty copies of my twenty-seven page not-so-short story, but on copy sixteen, my ink started to fade. Somehow I managed to wait in line at the copy shop across campus, pay for my remaining for copies, and still have time for lunch.

“There,” I said, slapping my 540 sheets of paper on the table in the food court. I had found a face to which I could complain. “It’s rushed, I finished it this morning, but it’s done and now I can turn it in and drive back home to my very angry boyfriend.”

Tyson sat across from me, his stack of papers also on the table. Only our stories were due that day, in a fateful bit of scheduling from the beginning of the semester. He had a very suspicious grin on his face. “You probably finished yours weeks ago,” I said.

“I wrote mine in an hour and a half this morning,” he answered.

“I hate you,” I said, but I smiled. I had the beginning of liking him rolling around in the back of my brain, but I obviously had other things on my mind and wasn’t really wanting to devote the brain space. He liked me, but knew it wasn’t the time. At that moment, he was a friendly guy in two of my classes who had the maddening quality of being very good at things with little effort. He sat there and listened to me complain over my tuna sandwich and pasta salad. We walked to class together.

Time will be the judge of all here.

5. Silver and Cold — AFI
“The thing I like about Davey,” I said one night to Tyson, referring to the singer from AFI, “is that his love songs don’t sound like love songs.” This list makes it clear that I have no problem with the typical love song, but no one explores the “I would do anything for you” sentiment quite like Davey Havok. He may not always take the most healthy approach, but he keeps it interesting.

Your sins into me
Oh my beautiful one
As a rapturous voice escapes
I will tremble a prayer
and I’ll beg for forgiveness


“Silver and Cold” is my very favorite AFI song, at the very least because of how dynamic the music is. With the low purr into the ear at the beginning, punctuated by the rising chorus, it graduates and swells in all the right places. The thing I’ve discovered about excessive AFI listening is that it leads to more excessive AFI listening. I may not be a moody goth kid, but I understand how easy it is to throw yourself heart and head first into the music. Tyson bought the album, Sing the Sorrow, the day it came out for $5.99 at Target, and we played our money’s worth by the end of the week. “Silver and Cold” grabbed me, appropriately enough, on a wintery afternoon in the car. I had started attempt number two at the novel (now long abandoned), and I was struck by the themes of self-sacrifice and devotion. I find that many of my best thoughts on what I should write occur behind the wheel, and I really need to get a better system of remembering. Though my style is not quite so poetic, these lines have a tendency to make me want to drop everything and get to work, knowing that the only way I’m going to get any better is to keep at it:

Light, like the flutter of wings
feel your hollow bones rushing into me
as you’re longing to sing


It’s not exactly low self-esteem that drives the song, filled with the need to look past a significant other’s faults, exalting them to the point of ignoring what it might do. He catches the moment before the urge to destroy takes over, his voice surging with want. He seems only partially aware that taking on another person’s troubles to such an extent will only weaken them both. The idea of two people being the same sort of distressed instead of one is misguided romance, but it makes for no less satisfying of a listen.

I only ask you turn
as you seep into me
Oh my beautiful one


Not long ago, I read an interview with John Cusack where he compared music to being “the closest thing to prayer.” If anything, I believe that music has the ability to heal, challenge and inspire more than any other faith could, and I think that the people who create it are tapped into a extraordinary force. They use their abilities to untangle their own hearts, moved to share themselves in such a way that says we are not alone. We’re all complicated, flawed and in this together. Created out of every conceivable circumstance, music is how we know we have a reason to hope. Even when we may feel we have nothing, the right song can change everything.

Many, Many Honorable Mentions:

Sandalwood — Lisa Loeb
And I want to kiss the back of your neck
the top of your spine where your hair hits
and gnaw on your fingertips and fall asleep
I’ll talk you to sleep


I knew I had to break the rules for the Letter S, if only for this song. S filled up without challenge, but I love this song no less than the others. I find it amazing that a simple song can affect me to the point of now having a scent preference. “I’m trying to keep cool, but everyone likes you.” Oh, do I know that feeling. I’m still trying to keep cool.

Sweet Transvestite — Rocky Horror Picture Show
My favorite song from one of my favorite movies. An elementary school-aged me saw this movie on TV, and I didn’t know if I was supposed to be watching it. Every time I heard someone nearing the top of the basement stairs, I’d switch the channel, then switch back when I was assured whichever parent had returned to what they were doing. Draw whatever conclusions you may from the fact that my two favorite musicals are Bye, Bye Birdie and Rocky Horror. My friend Amy and I used to make a point to watch the movie around holidays, either Halloween or Christmas, gorging ourselves on Dr Pepper, chips and salsa. One day, I’ll make it to a midnight theater showing, “shiver[ing] with antici... pation.”

Step Out (live)— Oasis
One of the best lines ever: “I’m alive when you walk that way.” This song gives me a nearly uncontrollable case of musical tourettes. Whenever I hear the song introduced on Familiar to Millions, I’m somewhat unreachable for the next four minutes. The music just soars. Love, love, love it. “Can you hear what I can hear? It’s the sound of a brand new day.”

Something — George Harrison
Patti Boyd either had to be either the most fantastic woman ever or the most powerful in mind control. How she managed to get this, one of the greatest love songs, and one of the greatest guitar riffs (“Layla”) written in her honor, I don’t know. “You know I love that woman, and I need her all of the time.”

Suspicious Minds — Elvis and etc.
The first time I heard this song, lifelong Elvis fan Gavin Rossdale was singing it. The enhanced CD single “Little Things” featured a video with him playing an acoustic version of the first minute or so of the song. His take is much quieter, a conversation between two people. Elvis, on the other hand, shouts it from the streets, “You can’t see the tears are real I’m cryin.’” It’s one of my favorite Elvis songs.

She is Love — Oasis
One could argue that this song is the only reason to buy Heathen Chemistry, but that’s a little harsh. HC has plenty of good songs, but “She is Love” is the best. My heart bursts in a fit of uncontrollable joy whenever I hear it. Any woman would be lucky to have song like this written for them:

You read all my thoughts of passion
and the dreams of my delight.
Whatever stirs my mortal frame, will you keep it warm at night?
I don’t know where you come from,
and no I haven’t got a clue.
All I know is I’m in love with someone who loves me too.

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