We all have a special song. Okay, we all have lots of special songs but there’s one in particular that, as you go through life, it never stops being deeply relevant. It’s the one that pops into your head with remarkable regularity because it applies in so many ways to so many things. This is the song that spoke TO you and FOR you in equal measure like no other song. The trick is, you have to get pretty far down the road to realize which song that is and why that song was “it”. The first instant I saw the Marx Brothers — Groucho in particular — I knew they were kindred spirits. And then, after decimating the room with a barrage of brilliant barbs, Groucho starts to sing.
The movie is “Horse Feathers” The setting is Huxley College — an institution of higher education successful enough to have a faculty and a football team but, apparently, no capacity to do any sort of meaningful executive search considering as they just hired Groucho’s Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff to take over running the joint. But then, real life logic doesn’t play inside a Marx Brothers movie. That, too, made them appealing when I was ten years old. At ten, you’re starting to fall into line, doing what the adults tell you to do even as you’re just starting to sense (your teenage years not too, too far ahead) that every adult is full of shit. When, suddenly, one of the adults wheels around — breaking the fourth wall — and tells you some stone cold truths about adults that makes them look foolish? I’m all ears.
Groucho’s Professor Wagstaff sings:
I don’t know what they have to say It makes no difference anyway Whatever it is, I’m against it No matter what it is or who commenced it I’m against it
This born contrarian heard those words and felt immediate kinship. The target was always authority. In every Marx Brothers movie, the rich look fatuous and silly. In “Horse Feathers”, academia gets hosed. In the brilliant “Duck Soup”, it’s political power. In “A Night At The Opera”, it’s stuffy, white culture and rich people again. Groucho best summarized the persistent sentiment this way: “I would not want to be a member of any club that would have me as a member”. I’m even against me if ever I become the power.
The song’s theme is reflected in the name of this blog. “How to live bullshit free” has focused its attention on bullshit itself as the “it” in the “whatever it is”. And, if we’re talking about bullshit –mine especially (since my bullshit is what matters to me as yours should matter most to you) — then I am absolutely one hundred percent against it.
We all know those song lyrics that people have famously gotten wrong — “Scuse me while I kiss this guy” instead of “Scuse me while I kiss the sky” (Hendrix) or “Like a virgin, touched for the thirty-first time” instead of “for the ‘very first time’,” (Madonna) or “Hold me closer, Tony Danza” instead of “tiny dancer” (Elton John). But, what of the whole songs people get wrong? The classic example is the Police’s “Every Breath You Take” — which some people play at their weddings. I guess if you quit at the title and never actually listened to the lyrics, you might think obsessing on every breath the object of your desire takes is, um, romantic. The song’s about a stalker. That doesn’t require a whole lot of “textual analysis” to get to.
Every move you make Every vow you break Every smile you fake Every claim you stake Ill be watching you
Every vow you BREAK? Every smile you FAKE? Wait — isn’t this a wedding song? “I’ll be watching you” sounds a little like the character in Randy Newman’s song “You Can Leave Your Hat On”. Although at least that guy seems to have a modicum of consent on his side.
Since you’ve gone I been lost without a trace I dream at night I can only see your face I look around but its you I can’t replace I feel so cold and I long for your embrace I keep crying baby, baby, please…
Relationships are tricky things, true, but, surely people understand the difference between a guy suffering an emotional breakdown with a groom. In a similar vein — where people find something in a song that the song’s writer never put there — Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”. Now, “Hallelujah” also gets dragged into solemn occasions and weighty moments with religious overtones. It was used repeatedly during Joe Biden’s inauguration ceremonies. But that’s really only because of the song’s title (and its chorus): “Hallelujah”. If you read the lyrics, it’s right there — what the song’s about — and it’s brilliant.
“Hallelujah” is the best song ever written about the agony and ecstasy of love. The song flirts with the darkest cynicism about love — and it’s the religious framing that makes it work so brilliantly. Love is like a religion. REM’s equally brilliant “Losing My Religion” goes right at it — the feeling of being spiritually lost when love falls apart. We build temples around love. We ache for its transcendence but settle for its quotidian challenges. Love (like religion) can make one cynical. In fact, when Leonard Cohen first recorded the song, he made the song’s tormented cynicism crystal clear — listen to how he performs the song’s very first line, especially the question “Do ya?”
Also confounding people — and giving them the impression the song’s somehow “religious” — Cohen uses Biblical words and references; he alludes to the Biblical King David obsessing over Bathsheeba — bathing on the roof, overthrown by her beauty and the moonlight.
Your faith was strong but you needed proof You saw her bathing on the roof Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew her She tied you to a kitchen chair She broke your throne, and she cut your hair And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah
Then, mixing in a little Samson & Delilah, Cohen ties the lover to a kitchen chair, totally powerless. The “Hallelujah” she draws from his lips may be ecstatic, but there’s agony on the horizon. And, as we all know, the agony parts always last way, way longer than any ecstasy parts.
Baby, I’ve been here before, I’ve seen this room, I’ve walked this floor. I used to live alone before I met ya. Well, I’ve seen your flag on the Marble Arch, And love is not a victory march – It’s a cold and it’s a broken “Hallelujah!” Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah…
“It’s a cold and it’s a broken ‘Hallelujah’.” Wait, didn’t I see that once on the back of some divorce lawyer’s business card?
The Daddy of all “Songs People Get Wrong” is Randy Newman’s iconic “I Love LA” which, ironically, LA has embraced though — if you read the lyrics — they shouldn’t. “I Love LA” is not a love song to the city of angels. It’s poking fun at us, at how shallow we are.
Yes, there’s this part of it — which is all sweeeeeet! —
Rollin’ down the Imperial Highway With a big nasty redhead at my side Santa Ana winds blowin’ hot from the north And we was born to ride
Roll down the window, put down the top Crank up the Beach Boys, baby Don’t let the music stop We’re gonna ride it till we just can’t ride it no more
From the South Bay to the Valley From the West Side to the East Side Everybody’s very happy ‘Cause the sun is shining all the time Looks like another perfect day
But, the punchline to all the sweetness is this —
Look at that mountain Look at those trees Look at that bum over there, man He’s down on his knees Look at these women There ain’t nothin’ like em nowhere
Century Boulevard (We love it) Victory Boulevard (We love it) Santa Monica Boulevard (We love it) Sixth Street (We love it, we love it) We love L.A.
Wait, wait? How can we focus on all the good-looking women with “bums” in our field of vision, down on their knees, in homeless camps that grow larger and more ubiquitous daily? How can we focus on streets as banal and characterless from one end to the other as Century Boulevard or Sixth Street when we’re worrying about someone else’s human plight? Trust me, everyone who isn’t an Angeleno, there’s NOTHING to love about any of the streets mentioned in the song. THAT’S THE JOKE!
Alas, even most Angelenos don’t “get” the joke. Oh, how Randy Newman must chuckle at us (Angelenos) as the money for that song keeps pouring in.
All the people in New York City may “dress like monkeys”, but it’s we Angelenos who act like monkeys as we cheer ourselves to that song.
And, while we’re at it? Newman’s “Sail Away” covers American racism from the other side. Think of the lyrics as a wry commentary on racism — how a racist slave trader might try to pitch slavery to potential slaves on a recruiting poster.
“We’re just gonna sing about Jesus and drink wine all day… It’s great to be an American!”
The English Premiership Football season started today. My side — I’m a Tottenham Hotspur fan (through marriage) going back 30 years — won! Though they played a dull first half, in the second half, the Spurs looked more Spurs-like. They pressed, they out-hustled, they attacked relentlessly. Our new guy (Ndombele) was great and Harry Kane who almost never scores in August, scored two goals! If you’re not a Spurs supporter like I am, that probably means nothing to you.
I understand. Spurs aren’t your tribe. You might be an Arsenal supporter (in which case piss off!) or you love Chelsea or Man U or Man City. I’ve got a good friend who supports West Bromwich-Albion (relegated last season to the League Championship, a tier below the Premier League). You might not even like footie. You might prefer American Football. Or hockey or baseball.
You might be a Lakers fan or a Dodgers fan — in which case, so am I. It’s not a problem for me (or anyone really) to take off their Spurs kit and put on a baseball cap or football jersey instead. One knows one can support several teams at the same time. One can belong to those tribes, as it were.
A fan base for a sports team — or even a singer — that’s a tribe, too. When you’re at a concert, surrounded by people who adore the performer as much as you do — you feel a sense of community with them. You’re both members of the same tribe.
For humans, being tribal is a survival instinct. We’re social creatures. Our success as individuals depends on our ability to cut it as part of the group. It’s a sad, horrifying fact: how one does in life is connected to how one does in middle school. If you socialized well in middle school, you should do fine in life. If you sucked socializing in middle school, you have a chance now to get your socialization right — with all the success and popularity that come with it. The trick is in which tribes you strive to become part of.
In middle school, of course, success depends on finding the one tribe that will have you. If you’re lucky enough to find, join and be accepted by that tribe, nothing else matters. Regardless of what happens to you, you’ll be fine in the end cos you’ve got your tribe.
Life works the diametric opposite way. Success depends on how MANY tribes you see yourself as part of.
When the Spurs game finished this morning, the Spurs and Aston Villa, their opponents, shook hands. The players all shook hands with the refs. The Spurs tribe on the field and the Aston Villa tribe on the field stopped being opposing tribes and became, instead, a tribe of footballers who all play well enough to be in the English Premiership. The players as a group stopped (for the most part) seeing refs as strange interlopers and saw them as a different breed of soccer professional — a different branch of the same tribe as them.
The fans at Spurs new, beautiful stadium, all cheered loudly for their conquering heroes. Eventually, they’d all finish celebrating, get their stuff together and head off into the streets — still Spurs supporters but also Londoners, too.
Those Spurs supporters never stopped being Londoners, of course. At the same time that I’m a Dodgers and Lakers fan (while remaining a Spurs fan), I’m also an Angeleno. I see other Angelenos as my tribe. I see people in my neighborhood as my tribe. I see Californians as my tribe. Excepting for Trump supporters (they’re racists), I see Americans as my tribe.
The problem with white supremacists (like there’s just “one” problem with them!) is that they see white people as their tribe. That’s it — just white people. Even when they say they’re Americans, you don’t get the feeling that their idea of the “American Tribe” and ours are the same thing. Their idea of “American” is them. If you’re not them, you can’t be in their tribe. You can’t be white (of course) and you can’t be American.
If I didn’t despise them for thinking how they think, I’d feel sorry for them — same reason. They’ve gotten it backwards.
The genius of America is that anyone can be American — provided they’re willing to work their asses off and work well with other people. Likewise, Americans moving to America from all over the world embrace diversity because they come from diversity. Diversity has always been what makes America truly exceptional.
Diversity demands finding kinship with as many different tribes as one can. The more diverse your circle of friends & acquaintances, the more diverse your tribe is. Before long, you begin to see human beings as your tribe.
Imagine that — seeing other people as your tribe just because they’re people. I hope the condition is catching. I really do.
We all get obsessed with songs. That’s the whole point of writing a song, I guess. To get everyone who hears your song to be unable to get the song out of their heads. Sounds mighty powerful. I wouldn’t know; I’ve written lyrics to songs but the melody part — the actual point of the exercise — is way outside my skill set.
I’m throwing down here a couple of songs — one recent, one not old but not the artist’s most recent work, — that are always playing somewhere in my head. If I hear them out here in reality, I will stop whatever I’m doing to hear the song out. I’m that smitten.
Go on — take the plunge. Get infected…
First — I have been a Marina Diamandis fan from the moment I first heard/saw the video for her “I’m Not A Robot” (as part of her “band” Marina & The Diamonds). I turned my daughter onto Marina, too. Among the things I respect about this artist is the fact that she’s got a lot on her mind. Even the way she approaches relationships isn’t from the “you hurt me, now I’m angry” rack, it’s from the whole “Relationships are damned complex” store. “Forget” is a shining example — off her album Froot — filled with great songs.
Second — Vampire Weekend’s “This Life” off their just released Father Of The Bride. The whole album is brilliant. “Harmony Hall” is on the verge of becoming another permanent fixture in my head. “This Life” is a perfect combination of jaunty tune with deeply ironic lyrics: “Baby, our disease, is the same one as the trees, unaware that they’ve been living in a forest”. There’s a drumbeat under the line “Oh, Christ, am I good for nothing” that has the distinct feeling of one pounding one’s hands into one’s head in angst — all while unable to resist the urge to dance. That’s a great song.