Lou Reed Lyrics Day 4: Smalltown

Today I’m going to examine the lyrics from the Lou Reed and John Cale collaboration Songs for Drella.  This is their tribute to Andy Warhol.  The name of the album comes from Warhol’s nickname.  It derived from a combination of Dracula and Cinderella.  

Smalltown

When you’re growing up in a smalltown
When you’re growing up in a smalltown
When you’re growing up in a smalltown
You say, no one famous ever came from here

When you’re growing up in a smalltown
And you’re having a nervous breakdown
And you think that you’ll never escape it
Yourself or the place that you live

Where did Picasso come from
There’s no Michelangelo coming from Pittsburgh
If art is the tip of the iceberg
I’m the part sinking below

When you’re growing up in a smalltown
Bad skin, bad eyes, gay and fatty
People look at you funny
When you’re in a smalltown

My father worked in construction
It’s not something for which I’m suited
Oh, what is something for which you are suited
Getting out of here

I hate being odd in a smalltown
If they stare let them stare in New York City
As this pink eyed painting albino
How far can my fantasy go

I’m no Dali coming from Pittsburgh
No adorable lisping Capote
My hero, oh, do you think I could meet him?
I’d camp out at his front door

There is only one good thing about smalltown
There is only one good use for a smalltown
There is only one good thing about smalltown
You know that you want to get out

When you’re growing up in a smalltown
You know you’ll grow down in a smalltown
There is only one good use for a smalltown
You hate it and you’ll know you have to leave

The album as a whole is exceptional as the pair obviously knew Warhol well.  They paint portraits of his life, often from the first person, conjuring all different moods and angles.  

This is a song where Reed’s delivery and the simple piano music that back it contribute greatly to the enjoyment of the lyrics.  It brings out a mischievous comic nature to them.  

What this song demonstrates, again, is Lou’s ability to paint a three dimensional portrait of a character.  In order to do this one has to have sympathy and understanding for other people.  Lou rarely writes anything that is sentimental, but that is because sentimental feelings usually cloud the truth.  Things are often rosier than they really were when we look back upon them.  In doing away with sentimental feelings Lou is able to get closer to an objective view of things, at least as objective as one can be when dealing in a poetic form. 

Also, look at the references; Picasso, Capote, Dali, Michelangelo.  These are not the kind of names that pop up in a mainstream pop song with any frequency.  Although Lou Reed could write with the blunt language of the street, he is often just as comfortable with highbrow literary and art references. 

Lou is able to be empathetic to Warhol’s situation, while at the same time displaying his mastery of droll comic timing.  I love the line, “pink eyed painting albino.”  It’s such a bizarre turn of phrase.  You are on one hand laughing at the strange outsider that Warhol was, while always being on his side throughout the song.  That’s not an easy feet to achieve in writing; to make a figure both comical and empathetic.  Up in the North East, where like Lou Reed I’m from, we often bust the balls most of the people we love.  He is poking fun, but he is doing so with love. 

He also ends with the lines, “There’s only one good thing about a smalltown, you hate it and you know you’ll have to leave.”  The juxtaposition of the word good in the first part and hate in the second is again a great small bit of comedy.  David Milch, the creator of Deadwood, once said something along the lines of how comedy is the surprise of something not turning out the way you expected.  He used the example of the piano falling on someone and then they survive.  Comedy is the piano falling on someone and them surviving.  In combining two sentiments that wouldn’t normally be associated with each other, Lou is playing with the listeners expectations.  It’s just great writing in a pop song.  Also, one could view the whole song as the piano of the smalltown falling on Warhol, and him surviving.  A miniature comedy, expertly crafted.  

Again, I know that I am technically posting this early, but it’s after midnight east coast.  I’d like to say that I am doing this to honor the timezone in which Lou Reed lived, but in reality I’ve got shit to do in the morning!  

 

Brian Johnson in the Classroom: Antone’s Tonight

Tonight I will first be in a university classroom getting advice on the paper I am writing, and am way behind on, on civic engagement and climate change.  I will then be at Antone’s in Austin, Texas with Shinyribs. I will be dressed on stage as Brian Johnson from AC/DC for Halloween.  First I will humiliate myself intellectually with how behind I am and then I will dance around like a monkey with a wig on.  Showtime is at 9:30pm.  Life!!!   

Problems With and Ideas About Music Criticism

I downloaded the new Arcade Fire from Amazon yesterday because they had it, a double album, for an insanely low price.  I wanted to review it as I knew it was a major release.  At around 75 minutes it is also a long album.  It is not the kind of album that you can digest in a few sittings and uncover all that it has to offer.  So many albums that I now love have taken me weeks, months, even years to truly appreciate.  I started thinking how so much of criticism is really just a series of reactionary and momentary opinions.  I’m sure you have heard many albums called “growers” before, meaning as I said that they take time to appreciate.  I realized that many critics are reviewing the seed, and not the flower.  If you really care and know enough about music, you might be able to look at the seed and have some kind of idea of what kind of flower it is going to turn into, but at some point it is just an educated guess.   This does not mean that good criticism is not valuable.  Those momentary opinions can still help us navigate through the infinite amount of choices that there seem to be out there, but we should realize them for what they are.  But if we are going to make reactionary, momentary judgments then what should guide us?  Here are just a few ideas that I had.  By no means is what follows the Bible for music criticism(just some passing ideas):

There is art that is serious and art that is not serious.  I don’t mean serious as in it is not fun.  I mean that there is stuff where people are trying to convey some kind of expression, and then there is stuff that is made with the sole intent of stealing your money.  The first thing when listening to an album is we should decide if this is meant with any kind of serious intent, or this is just some corporate claptrap that has been stitched together.  That being said, there is occasionally soulless packaged records that have something to recommend them, despite the odds.  There are always going to be exceptions to the rules.

Once we decide if this is a marketing coaster or a real record the next thing we should do is decide if this has any unique personality of its own.  There are plenty of artists that mean what they are doing, but whose field of vision is so narrow that they are simply aping someone else that came before them.  You saw this after the initial wave of grunge came through.  I think Creed meant what they were doing, but since they had only ever listened to Pearl Jam, they made really shitty watered down Pearl Jam records.

Once you decide if there is any originality there, you should think about the music, lyrics, and melody.  Depending on what form something is, whether it’s singer songwriter material, or dance music, or heavy metal, or pop music, what order you put the three above categories in order of importance will matter.  If it is dance music then lyrics don’t really matter all that much.  If it is singer songwriter stuff then they better be able to turn a fucking phrase.  If it is heavy metal then the musicianship and sound come first.  That’s not to say that all three things that make a record don’t matter.  However, I would be able to forgive a metal band for a goofy lyric if they were playing their asses off.  Likewise I might be able to forgive a singer songwriter for some primitive acoustic guitar playing if their words rang with true poetry.  I’m just trying to say that every form of music should be rated within the merits of that form.

Anyway, I could go on about modern music criticism for quite sometime and will pick it up in a future thread.  Most modern criticism consists of two kinds.  There are the one paragraph blurb reviews, in which we learn absolutely nothing.  Then there are the longer reviews in places like Pitchfork, which can occasionally be enlightening, but usually are just ego pieces by the writer trying to display their wit.  The most important thing when I read a review is that I want to learn about a piece of music so that I can decide if it is something I will check out further.  If you teach me nothing about it, and regurgitating press releases doesn’t count, then you have not done your job.

I imagine you find a lot of situations where a critic comes up against something like the new Arcade Fire record, Reflektor.  A critic encounters a piece of music that is long and dense and not easily digestible.  Instead of doing the best they can and admitting that there is no way that they can honestly give something a fair shake after two or three listens, we get an article that is half filled with recollections about the time their older brother played them the first Arcade Fire album in high school, or some such drivel.  Critics, it’s Ok to admit defeat, life is full of it.

I actually will give a proper review of the new Arcade Fire record now that I have written this piece.  But as commented, due to its nature, I believe that it will take some proper diving into.    

Thanks From the Heart of My Bottom

Today the Windup Wire has reached 100 full time subscribers.  There are many others of you that visit this site on a regular basis, and many of you that just check it out from time to time.  I can’t thank all of you enough.  I’ve only been at this for three months and I am extremely happy that so many of you have cared enough to read what I have written.  I promise to always be as truthful as I can be, given one’s own personal limitations and blind spots.  I will write as much as I can, about as many things as I can, for those of you that enjoy coming here.  The world is an incredibly interesting place filled with mystery and wonder.  Being a working musician with an American Studies degree, I hope that I can provide you with a unique insight into politics, literature, film, TV, and music.  I want to examine our culture and look at how all of these various subjects interact to make us who we are.  I am filled with tremendous gratitude to all of you.  We are only getting started.  Onward through the fog…

Lou Reed Lyrics Day 3: Families

Today I’m looking at the lyrics from Lou Reed’s song Families.  This is from one of his masterpieces, an album titled The Bells:

Families

(How’s the family)
(How’s the family)

Mama, you tell me how’s the family
And papa, tell me how thing’s going by you
And little baby sister, I heard that you got married
And I heard that you had yourself a little baby girl, too
And here’s some uncles and some cousins I know vaguely
And would you believe my old dog Chelsea’s here, too
And would you believe nobody in this family
wanted to keep her
And now that dog’s more of a part of this family
then I am, too
I don’t come home much anymore
No-no-no I don’t come home much anymore
Mama

And mama, I know how disappointed you are
And papa, I know that you feel the same way, too
And no-no-no-no-no I still haven’t got married
And no-no-no there’s no grandson planned here for you
And by the way, daddy tell me how’s the business
I understand that your stock she’s growing very high
No, daddy, you’re not a poor man anymore
And I hope you’ll realize that before you die
Because I don’t come home much anymore
No-no-no-no-no I don’t come home much no more
But daddy

And please-please-please-please-please
come on let’s not start this business again
I know how much you resent the life that I have
But one more time, I don’t want the family business
Don’t want to inherit it upon the day that you die
Really, daddy should have given it to my sister
You know Elisabeth, you know Elisabeth
she has a better head for those things than I
She lives practically around the corner
That’s really the kind of child you could be proud of
But papa, I know that this visit’s a mistake
There’s nothing here we have in common, except our name
And families that live out in the suburbs
Often make each other cry
And I don’t think that I’ll come home much anymore
No-no, I don’t think I’ll come home much again
Mama
Papa
Families
Often make each other cry
No, I don’t think that I’ll come home much anymore

One of the things that often gets overlooked with Lou Reed is the depth with which he could write sympathetic character studies.  Sure he could write songs about the underbelly of New York and the darker side of life, and when he did it was almost always excellent.  But he also could capture every day interactions between people with a lot of detail and warmth.  That’s not to say the family in this song is happy.  They are struggling, but no more than millions of families do.  But one of Lou’s gifts is that he doesn’t make it sentimental.  He just paints the situation as is, as if he is watching it and chronicling it the best he can.

The story in this song could be Lou’s own, or it could be a character.  I would imagine, but don’t know, that it is probably a composite between his real life and things that he made up to make the piece work.  That doesn’t mean that the characters, like the sister Elisabeth that gets mentioned is real.  I have no idea about his family life other than a few details.  Even if there isn’t a real Elisabeth, I mean that he could be writing from a place of real emotional truth and experience and giving poetic form to it.  That’s been my experience of how songwriting works a good amount of the time anyway.  Even if you set up to write something that is absolutely true and personal, because of having to make things rhyme, wanting to make things have some kind of poetic beauty and emotional truth, which is often different than fact, you change things to make it work.  So again, even if you aim out to write a first person account of your life story, it ends up being a composite of fact and fiction in some way.  And not only is there nothing wrong in this, but sometimes you actually get closer to the truth.

Songs are too restrictive as a form, in terms of structure, to paint out every detail.  You need to paint within the form, which consists of couplets and verses and choruses and middle eights.  Sometimes, and Lou Reed has done this, you can put free form poetry over a piece of music.  Lou Reed did this on Harry’s Circumcision from Magic and Loss. On Families Lou Reed employs minimal structure, but it’s there.  You can see this by the way includes the word “too” at the end of the certain lines to make them rhyme.  He is much more interested in conveying the story than adhering too closely to form or structure, but he does enough of it to make it work as a song.

Anyway, I got caught up in talking about the form of it myself for too long.  Really I wanted to show those of you that might not be as familiar with his work that beneath the often gruff exterior that there was a lot of compassion and an understanding of the human condition.  And the lines, “Families that live out in the suburbs, often make each other cry”, is just to die for!  It is so simple, yet has incredible depth.  It says everything right there.  A whole world in twelve words.

I want to close with one last point.  Often because Lou Reed was capable of plumbing the dark depths of the human experience, it often made his tender pieces so much more meaningful.  They felt like hard won battles for understanding and compassion.  You believed him when he wrote something with heart.  The same is also true in the opposite.  Because he could write pieces that were exceptionally empathetic, when he went dark you knew he wasn’t fucking around.  I am going to miss that talent incredibly.  He was someone that saw the world, or at least a part of it, as it was; someone that could make poetry out of the mud of human experience.  We must now make due without him, but lord I wish we didn’t have to…

Silver Unicorns

Today is a day of two firsts.  First of all I never thought in a billion years that I would even partly find myself on the same side as Grover Norquist.  He has been ripping Ted Cruz’s ass in the press today.  Yes, he is doing it because he disagrees with Ted Cruz on policy and not politics, but it is still fun to see.  The other first is that the tax man actually made me laugh.  On the Daily Beast I read that he said that Ted Cruz and his allies were chasing, “silver unicorns.”  I feel like checking my apartment for portals, because I feel like I just stepped into another dimension.  Well whatever world I’m in, it’s good to see Ted Cruz getting shit slam dunked by his buddies.  Couldn’t happen to a better guy.  

Quote

Ruins of the Realm

Standin’ in the middle of a Roman street
Marble dust all over my feet
Bearded masses at the gates
Dancin’ in the ruins while it’s not too late

Drivin’ a Rolls through old Bombay
Rickshaw driver’s in my way
Well he’d better move over and he’d better move fast
Dancin’ in the ruins of a golden past
Dancin’ in the ruins of the Raj
Queen and country’s noble cause

Standin’ on banks of the river Seine
I ain’t got tuppence to my name
Stand my ground and I cast my net
Dancin’ in the ruins where the sun don’t set
Dancin’ in the ruins of the Crown
Enfield rifles keepin’ us down

I got a thirty-ought-six and a premium load
In a shotgun shack on a two lane road
Smack in the middle of the bible belt
Dancin’ in the ruins all by myself

We got the National Guard with the bayonets
We got the ten commandments on the State House steps
We shalt not steal and we shalt not kill
Dancin’ in the ruins of our own free will
Dancin’ in the ruins of the South
Confederate flag taped over my mouth

We thank thee lord for all we got
While the multi-nationals call the shots
So scrape them hides and clean that slate
Dancin’ in the ruins of the nation-state

We’ll fight ‘em in the land, we’ll fight ‘em in the air
Little cowboy says we got to fight ‘em over there
You ain’t seen nothing like it since Saigon fell
Dancin’ in the ruins ’cause we might as well
Dancin’ in the ruins of the realm
A fool and a mad man at the helm
Dancin’ in the ruins of the Reich
Down in the bunker on a hunger strike

Lyrics from Ruins of the Realm by one of my Austin favorites, James McMurtry.