November 18th, 2010

Bookish music

I think I’ve done a post like this in the past, but I don’t remember so it’s like it never happened–let’s start over! While Mark takes on the rock’n’roll novel, I’d like to  look at the literary song!

I’ve actually been meaning to do this for a while now, but literary songs are hard to spot–you really have to sit down and listen. The problem is–as usual–metaphors. People use the acts of reading and writing, and the physical objects of books, as metaphors for all kinds of “feelings” and “relationships”! You think you’ve got some lovely literary tune, and it turns out to be about love or something. Neither Elvis Costello’s Every Day I Write the Book nor the Magnetic Fields’ The Book of Love is about an actual book (though that Merit fellow is bloody clever in making you think so). Even less literary are songs about writing that isn’t a real book even in it’s literal form, like diaries, or even not a book at all, like letters.

In the above examples, even what writing there is is pure metaphor–I don’t get the feeling an actual pen was ever involved. You know what song always makes think of someone at a desk? Famous Blue Raincoat by Leonard Cohen. Though a song (formerly a poem, I think) it has the exact pace and tone–even the rhythm–of the best things I get in the post (it’s good when Jennifer Warnes sings it, too).

My favourite litsy songs are actually literature–lyrics that are smart or funny or thoughtful or, even better, all three. Still, I wouldn’t want to listen to Loreena McKennit’s “Lady of Shalott” every day. More accessible, and yet stranger, are REM’s songs about stories and poems–they don’t sing them, they reimagine them, and sing their imaginings. Back to Mr. Cohen, REM explores his song/poem Suzanne, both the words and the tune, in their trippy wonderful song “Hope” (what? why can’t I find a link for that? also, I don’t know where the alligators come from). I also adore their investigation (no other word for it) of Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery in the song “Falls to Climb,” which gets weirder and more interesting the more you listen to it. Unfortunately, I can’t find a link to the REM version–all that’s on the web, it seems, are terrible covers I can’t be responsible for bringing into your life. But you should hear that one if you can. (And whoever the person was who explained that song to me–I think it was a blog reader–should remind me of his or her identity, since I remain grateful.)

Sometimes I think a song is about writing or reading, but I’m not sure. I guess that’s the nature of pop music. Like, these lyrics:

Now I’m hunched over a typewriter
I guess you’d call that paintin’ in a cave
And there’s a word I can’t remember
And a feeling I cannot escape
And now my ashtray’s overflowin’
I’m still starin’ at a clean white page
Oh and morning’s at my window
She is sending me to bed again

Now that’s as apt a description of the writing life as I’ve seen, but it’s from Bright Eyes’ Another Travelling Song, which is pretty much adamant in its title that it is not a writing song. The rest is about driving and cell phones and maybe child abuse? I’m not sure…it’s a really good song though.

And then there’s stuff where I *feel* like I relate, but I actually don’t have a clue. Like “Language City” by Wolf Parade sounds promising, but what is it actually about? “Language city is a bad old place / we all know / our eyeballs float in space / we all know / we were tired / we can’t sleep / it’s crowded here / others leave / Language City don’t mean a thing / to me.” Yep, not a clue–though the refrain, “All this work just to tear it down” does sound familiar.

This is my favour sort of puzzle–books, music, pointless theorizing–so if you’ve got some litsy music to recommend, please share!

3 Responses to “Bookish music”

  • Kerry Clare says:

    Courage by the Tragically Hip, which alludes to The Watch that Ends the Night (I love that book). And Paperback Writer by the Beatles, of course. Also in Dancing In the Dark when Bruce is “sick of sitting round here trying to write this book” and subsequently requires a love reaction, and someone called “baby” to give him just one look.


  • AMT says:

    arg! kerry stole my dancin’ in the dark comment.

    now i have nothing really to comment with except to point out that i am pretty sure most Magnetic Fields songs that aren’t overtly about sex can be interpreted as being about it being difficult to create your original work/art/research/etc. i find this very comforting and encourage you to do the same?


  • Rebecca says:

    I suspsect Mr. Springsteen of using a metaphor, but a metaphor for what?

    Sometimes I think Magenetic Fields songs are about sex *as* art.


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So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum

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