Music and Lyrics

Music and Lyrics

I am a child, I’ll last a while. You can’t conceive of the pleasure in my smile.

You hold my hand, rough up my hair, it’s lots of fun to have you there.

God gave to you, now, you give to me, I’d like to know what you learned.

The sky is blue and so is the sea. What is the color, when black is burned?

What is the color?

I am a Child, Neil Young

The band was Buffalo Springfield – Bruce Palmer, Neil Young, Stephen Stills, Richie Furay and Jim Messina.  It was 1968 and they had released what would be their final album – The Last Time Around.  A teenaged hippy baby sitter named David was watching us for the evening.  I am certain when my father saw him in his psychedelic shirt and Birkenstocks, he mourned for the future of America.  The teenager was holding a number of record albums under his arm. “ Hey, little dudes”, he cooed as he flipped back his hair, surveying the four boys under 13.  My dad gave my mother that one last “ are you sure about this look”.  She smiled.  He was the oldest son of one of her dearest friends and was a great kid.  “ let’s go, Miles” she said.

Within seconds of my parents reversing onto the street and driving off toward some exotic liaison with other adults in a land of tinkling martini glasses and swirling perfume, the loading mechanism was dropping an LP on to the rotating turntable.  Richie Furay, Stephen Stills and Neil Young initiated the first track called On The Way.  As David grinned and fell into my father’s favorite lounge chair, I gathered on the floor and listened.  Eight songs later, a gentle harmonica led Neil Young into a soft ballad about being a kid.  “ I Am A Child” was the first melody where I can recall hearing the lyrics that were about me and how I felt.  The question of “what is the color, when black is burned?” came to symbolize for me a unfiltered world filled with innocent wonder.

Someone once reflected that “music is what feelings sound like.”  When you become a teenager, music, lyrics, books and perhaps your best friend are the only things in life that can be trusted.  As a writer filled with teenaged angst, I fashioned myself a lyricist and wrote bad songs – I mean, really bad songs, inspired by a counter cultural generation of poet songwriters who used words and music as a wedge to liberate feelings that lay trapped behind a generational door.  Whether it was Jackson Brown warning me that the “ the (earth’s) fuse was burning” or Stephen Stills reminding me to savor “ those top down nights when the air was red wine”, these sages of song seemed to know what lay ahead on the highway of life.

My first exposure to the mystical power of the lyrics was in 1977 on a silky Southern California summer night as we sat in my friend Phil’s bedroom screwing up our courage to play the White Album by the Beatles backwards.  It was rumored that the Charles Manson and his blood thirsty “family” had slaughtered Leno and Rosemary LaBianca along with actress Sharon Tate after hearing hidden messages on the White Album’s Revolution Number Nine.  “ If you play it backwards, the song says, ‘turn me on dead man’.” Sean warned.  Our other friend Brian nodded, knowingly. He was clearly disturbed by our experiment.  It was if we were playing with a Ouiji board on his grandmother’s grave.  He and Sean were devout Catholics and this all seemed like some great cosmic felony to be gathering like devil worshippers to play an LP that divined satanic messages to druggies and psychopaths.

We turned the record in reverse and slowly increased the volume.  It was scratchy at first- perhaps sounding the way Thomas Edison’s voice groaned as he invented his talking gramophone.  But, I could hear it, amidst the swirling mayhem of anarchic music in reverse – a ghostly moan repeating: “ Man-yon-min–man.  Man-yon-min-man”.  In retrospect, it was complete gibberish.  But at that moment, as I looked Brian, who sat like a stupefied granite statue, I felt a cold chill.  Had we sent some demonic homing signal into the night that could only be heard by murderers and long haired Satanists.

“ Did you hear it? He whispered.” I heard it!”  Not wanting to be left out, I agreed that the cryptic modulation could have been from beyond instructing us to go out and wreak mayhem on capitalists – whatever those were.  Just then Phil’s Mom stuck her head in the door and we all jumped ten feet into the air, looking guilty as if we had been caught using bloody chicken feet to outline pentagrams in some secret Satanist ceremony.  “Boys, it’s time to ride your bikes home.  It’s getting late and Mrs. O’Brien just called.” We looked outside and realized that the lingering afternoon had descended into sinister night.  “ You guys gotta go.” Phil confirmed. It sounded like a death sentence.

Brian and Sean disappeared together under weak, intermittent streetlamp light that barely fought off the shadows that sought to take over the empty road.  A van passed slowly and seemed to hesitate as it rolled by.  I was suddenly convinced that the entire Manson gang was following me home ready to plunge forks into my body and carve Helter Skelter in my rear end.  On that fateful night, I broke a land speed record covering three miles on a ten- speed while making countless deals with God that in exchange for my safe passage I would never tamper with the occult or malevolent lyrics again.

Yet, while others devoured music, I savoured the lyrics.  While people fawned over Dylan, I drank in the truth of Simon and Garfunkel and became a closet acolyte of Paul Simon, the songwriter– an oracle who lived in a province governed by emotions and physical forces.  In my lifetime, his lyrics have led me through the ghettos of Soweto and into the lives of the inspired, lost, indigent and misunderstood. “Kodachrome” reminded us how we gild the colors of our past and “ Me and Julio” introduced us to Mama Pajama in a Puerto Rican neighborhood. He urged us to go look for “America”.

Lesser known artists created singular works of art – testimonials to the marginalized of their generation.  Janis Ian summed up the broken glass and dark corridors of adolescence in “Seventeen”: “I learned the truth at seventeen. That love was meant for beauty queens, and high school girls with clear skinned smiles who married young and then retired. The valentines I never knew. The Friday night charades of youth were spent on one more beautiful. At seventeen I learned the truth. And those of us with ravaged faces lacking in the social graces, desperately remained at home, inventing lovers on the phone who called to say ‘come dance with me’ and murmured vague obscenities. It isn’t all it seems, at seventeen. “

John Lennon’s “Imagine” challenged us to think about a world devoid of war and hate. Don McClean’s American Pie became an anthem to America and rock and roll. Jim Morrison’s tortured literary genius was posthumously set to music and released by former band mates Robbie Krieger, Ray Manzerek and John Dunsmore in An American Prayer.  I feasted on every offering of free verse, attempting to conjure up my anthems to the sacred and the profane – dead Indians, women in ginger nylons, angels and sailors.  This turned out to be more difficult to accomplish in a sedate suburb cocoon where ballads about men with leaf blowers, postmen gone bad and car pool moms who choose to turn left and never look back did not seem to capture the imagination of anyone except perhaps, a child psychiatrist. I would have to wait until life led me into darker, rugged places where the raw minerals of insight and truth could be mined and forged into lyrics that could change the world.

I continued to listen between the lines of the music.  I became a boorish anthology of stories and useless anecdotes about the genesis of songs and the truth behind the music.  My world was shattered one evening when watching a special on the 60’s band Iron Butterfly.  The song, Indagaddadavida, soared up the charts in 1968 and was heralded as the convergence of psychedelic rock and heavy metal – a fulcrum moment in the evolution of the school of rock.  The seventeen minute song was analyzed, memorialized and canonized by legions of bobble headed burn-outs in search of truth and a party.

Years later, band members drummer Ron Bushy and Doug Ingle purportedly admitted that the title song was really intended to be called “ In The Garden of Eden” but that Ingle was so drunk during the recording session that he slurred the words to the track and the alternative version stuck.  All the years wasted trying to define the origins of the word

“Indagaddadavida”.  Sometimes, I learned, the lyrics were just in fact, words and the music was in fact, just music.  Things can be exactly what they appear to be, like the world seen through the unfiltered eyes of a child:

You are a man.  You understand. You pick me up and you lay me down again.

You make the rules, You say what’s fair. It’s lots of fun to have you there.

God gave to you, now, you give to me, I’d like to know what you learned.

The sky is blue and so is the sea. What is the color, when black is burned?

What is the color?

So You Think You’re A Gangsta

“I love you like a fat kid love cake . You know my style I say anything to make you smile” – 50 Cent

I was stuck in traffic the other day and decided to listen to some music to pass the time while inching along the snail’s pace of parkway.  When I turned on the radio I realized each station had been pre-programmed by my children to hip hop stations with loud lyrics and thumping bass, a swirling pulse of sound that felt like I was receiving angry CPR.  My car moved rhythmically up and down and for a moment I felt compelled to lose my tie, throw on dark glasses and “stick it to the man.”  I then remembered that, I am the man.

I recognize the messages conveyed in today’s rap and hip hop are hardly respectful in how they depict women or personal and social responsibility.  I find myself torn between the relentlessly creative and militant expression of a new generation of artists and their misanthropic, misogynist words and lifestyles.  The music claws at you.  My own children fashion themselves as suburban “gangstas” and have gotten me hooked on performers like The Black Eyed Peas, Justin Timberlake and Eminem (personally, I feel Outkast should have won a Grammy simply for the lyrics, “Ladies, lend me some sugar, I am your neighbor”. My iPod has been invaded by the likes of Big Boi, Snoop Dog, Akon, Ne-Yo, Ludacris, Dr Dre, Fat Joe (a man after my own heart), Gorillaz, Jay Z (he married Beyonce; enough said), and older, building block reliables like House of Pain and Arrested Development (a term people often use to describe me).

The genesis of rap and hip hop is social expression.  Some artists distort their lyrics, glorifying violence, gratuitous sex and drugs.  They obscure with verbal graffiti the beauty of music that tugs at our consciences with bitter honesty to describe social injustices and the consequences of inequality.  As US hip hop and rap splinters, the rest of the world is carrying the torch, using them to offer young adults an outlet for coping with the hatreds that dangle like poisoned snakes above their heads. As the artist Common puts it, ” real rappers are hard to find, just like the TV remote.”

In November 2003, USA Today profiled the Israeli rapper, Subliminal, and his side kick, Yoav Elasi (The Shadow).  With songs like “Snake Fish” and “Fingers on the Trigger” the artists form a release and graphic honesty around the terrors that plague their land: “The Country is rolling around like a cigarette in Arafat’s mouth.  Everyone running and with a lighter.  The blood flows to the sea….a stunted reality.”

And from Palestinian Arab rappers, Wahad and Chakaki: “To think the olive branch symbolizes peace.  Sorry, it does not live here anymore.  It’s been kidnapped, murdered.  There was peace my friend.  Handshakes, fake smiles, treaties signed in blood.  Where is God?  Domination from another nation.  We used to be brothers of Cain and now we’re under occupation.”

Rapper Disiz La Peste, of both Sengalese and French heritage, raps against the headwinds of racism.  “For France it matters nothing what I do.  In its mind, I will always be just a youth from Banlieve.

There are Bosnian Herzegovian rappers Edo Maajka, Frenkie and Hamza.  Turkish rapper, GurkanKan often jams with Sirgee and Kaisoze.  Each culture wrestles with its own heritage and chafes against the social reins that restrain a generation itching to burst out and run from the problems they inherited but did not create.  This highly charged music and lyrics can cause social fissures and generational stress fractures that shift the status quo, causing cultural upheaval and change.  These artistic quakes both relieve and build pressure.  Rap and hip hop are a confluence of musical artistry that can range from poetic genius to sociopathic nihilism.  It’s a lyrical dark alley with seductive whispers and scabrous, dancing shadows.

I admit it captivates me.  I even tried to master some of the lexicon.  For example, the other day, I was feeling “all flush, raw and bustin’ and decided to blow some cabbage at Brooks Brothers when I got a little skirby cause a Bama Buster Keaton started sidebustin’ my choices.  It turned out the guy was pervin’ and 5150.”  (Translation: I was feeling rich and very good and decided to spend some money at Brooks Brothers when I got a little freaked out because this guy who did not even know how to dress himself started sticking his nose into my business and didn’t know what he was talking about.  It turned out he was intoxicated and crazy.)  Hip hop slang can be useful in social situations.  Let’s say a friend has an infant with a “fragrant” soiled diaper and you want to gently tip them off to the situation.  Just say, “I think lil’ Johnny’s ridin’ dirty.”

Whether some like it or not, rap and hip hop have become as American as apple pie; as with all Western phenomena, the cultural pollution has penetrated the institutional defenses of other societies.  The graphic messages may offend some listeners, causing discomfort and resentment.  However, music offers an outlet and expression to adolescents trapped between childhood and adulthood – too young to rationalize the consequences of a chaotic world and too old to forget what they have seen.  Generations have always had to suffer the hand dealt by the preceding generation.  Whether the fact that old men make wars and young men fight them or a world polarized by the few who have so much and the many that have so little.  Adolescence, idealism and iconoclasm combine with inequity, injustice and anger to create a highly combustible form of expression.

My car throbs – pumping like an iron lung along Elm Street as I drive to pick up my teenaged daughter.  She is embarrassed, as usual, thinking that somehow I’m trying to pass myself off as someone who has a clue about music, her music.  I retaliate by cranking the volume and mouthing the words to a song by Young Money , ” Call me Mr Flinstone, I can make your bed rock. ” – all the while moving my head back and forth, with a smiling overbite worthy of Eddie Van Halen in mid-solo.  What she fails to realize is my appreciation of her music is not a disingenuous gesture to bridge a generational chasm.  I actually like hip hop and readily accept it as my generation’s urban burden to bear.

I say “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” Or, as Snoop Dog might say, ” if the music is fly, than you should try.”