“What came first, the music or the misery? People worry about kids playing with guns, or watching violent videos, that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?” ~John Cusack, High Fidelity
So recently I started putting together my eleventy twelfth playlist, this time for an iPod Shuffle. I skim through my music library, past all the crap. How some of that music got in there… oh, yeah, I remember. Some dude left his external hard drive of music at the office over the weekend a few years ago, so we all plugged it in and grabbed everything on it.
So I skim past Madonna and Janet Jackson and Pat Benatar and Squirrel Nut Zippers and on and on, and I drag only the songs I really love to the playlist, which is only 2GB. But it turns out that Cusack was right: was it me or the music? It seems like most of the songs are, even in the latter days of my romantic life in which I am clam happy, mostly about the misery of love.
All of this reminded me of a writing assignment in tenth grade. English II teacher Gil Hernandez had us pick a popular song and write a short analysis of the lyrics.
Michael picked (What a) Wonderful World, although I don’t know if he was listening to the original Sam Cooke or the Simon/Garfunkel/Taylor remix.
My song to analyze was The Beatles’ Let It Be, because my small record collection included some Beatles, and I thought it would make me look deep.
I was wrong, of course, because the lyrics to Let It Be are, like almost all song lyrics, pretty straightforward. Granted, they’re not as straightforward as, say, a Brooks and Dunn song, but still, Let It Be isn’t a complex weave of literary mystery.
All this got me thinking, particularly when I was on the road yesterday, about what song of that era deserves analysis, and by what virtue? Complexity? Imagery? Subtlety?
As I drove, with my iPod set to shuffle, I listened to the first few bars or lines of song after song after song, looking for a song from the summer of 1978 or earlier that fit the puzzle. It was pretty fun. One thing I did discover is that lots of song lyrics from the 1970s are at least as shallow and lame as later lyrics.
I listened and listened and listened. Of the three hours in the car, I spent more than two rejecting one song after another. The process accelerated. I know my music library pretty well, and I was able to reject a song based just the first couple of notes.
Then, about 25 minutes from home, came the song I sought. As soon as I heard the first scratchy guitar chords, I got a big smile on my face. It was Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here.
Wow. What a great song. The music is great. I know every word and every guitar note in it. I always sing along, and my guess is that everyone who knows this song sings along every time it comes on.
The lyrics are… well, I’ve been trying to understand them since 1982 when I first bought the album…
“Wish You Were Here”
“So, so you think you can tell Heaven from Hell, blue skies from pain.
Can you tell a green field from a cold steel rail?
A smile from a veil?
Do you think you can tell?
“Did they get you to trade your heroes for ghosts?
Hot ashes for trees?
Hot air for a cool breeze?
Cold comfort for change?
Did you exchange a walk on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?
“How I wish, how I wish you were here.
We’re just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl, year after year,
Running over the same old ground.
What have we found?
The same old fears.
Wish you were here.”
This certainly ranks among my all-time favorites. Of its era, I rank it number one, easily.
I wonder what Richard of 1978 would have written about it for that English II assignment.