Friday, December 01, 2006
Music To Mope By
Everybody is entitled to mope now and then, right? Maybe a little moping, on occasion, is good for you. Maybe. I mean, how do you know you're happy except by comparing your happiness to the times when you're unhappy?
I turned 38 yesterday. There is absolutely nothing special about turning 38.
One more year is over. Big deal.
I was feeling that way already, even before my son called to tell me that he now has a new baby sister. My ex-wife has been pregnant and "due any minute now" for the past couple of weeks. God, who's sense of humor is boundless, chose to give my son's new sister the same Birthday as me.
This basically means that I'll never have my son on my Birthday again.
By the way, my son's new sister also shares a Birthday with Mark Twain, Billy Idol, Winston Churchill … and such famous nutcases as G. Gordon Liddy, Abbie Hoffman, and Clay Aiken.
I like my ex-wife's husband and I'm genuinely happy for their family, but the main thing that I feel is jealousy of their new daughter.
I'm jealous because all of her good birthdays are ahead of her and all of mine are behind me. When you're young, every birthday is increasingly important. Each passing year represents new potential. With each year you put behind you, your abilities increase and your opportunities develop and your potential just goes through the roof.
Then, at some point between 20 and 30, personal potential reaches critical mass and it's "use it or lose it" time. If you do well, if you maximize your potential, you end up with a list of victories. If you don't, at some point you turn around and examine your life and realize that your potential is part of your past.
Then, each Birthday becomes sort of a macabre anniversary. Just one more yearly reminder that you're a little further from the cradle and a little closer to the grave. You're not yet dead, but you're no longer really alive in the ways that matter … you're just metabolizing food and oxygen and waiting for the day you stop doing that.
Yeah, I got my mope on, alright.
Of course, moping (like everything in life) is made better by music. Every element of life needs a soundtrack, even the downtimes.
When I was a teenager, with all the desire to mope in the world (but with no real reason to mope, ironically), my mope music was goth rock and metal. Bands like The Cure, Black Sabbath, Nine Inch Nails … songs like Metallica's "Fade To Black" or "Coma" by Guns N' Roses.
When you're young and congratulating yourself on how seriously you take the dim perspective of life, you can convince yourself that there's actual depth in lyrics such as these, from The Cure:
I crouch in fear and wait
I'll never feel again
If only I could remember
Anything at all
Then, you get older and have some real problems … maybe go through a real crisis or two … and you realize that Robert Smith of The Cure, whatever his legitimate charms may be, is nothing more than a fat British crybaby when it comes to lyrics.
A few of the bands I listened to in those days managed to write some meaningful lyrics … and Johnny Cash's stiring cover of the Nine Inch Nails song "Hurt" (with it's remarkable video) absolutely legitimizes the lyrics of that particular track. But, if you want real mope music, you have to look for songs with lyrics that actually deal in a real way with life's constant stream of mundane catastrophes.
With that in mind, I'm appropriately ambivalent about presenting
The SouthCon Top Ten
Mope Songs Of All Time
Song: "And All That Could Have Been"
Artist: Nine Inch Nails
When Nine Inch Nails released their 2001 live album, initial copies came with a bonus disc called Still. The bonus disc was a set of re-recorded versions of older NIN songs, performed acoustically (or, at least, in a toned-down arrangement). Some of the songs were new, and best of all was the album's centerpiece, a desolate and cold piano and vocal piece called "And All That Could Have Been." Trent Reznor (who, basically, is Nine Inch Nails) writes songs about depression and despair quite frequently. It's rare, though, when he manages to avoid melodrama and come up with something honest and raw, a real expression of painful regret.
I know you tried to rescue me
Didn't let anyone get in
Left with a trace of all that was
And all that could have been…
Please, take this and run far away
Far away from me
I am tainted
The two of us were never meant to be
Song: "Don't Follow"
Artist: Alice In Chains
Album: Jar Of Flies
Layne Staley of Alice In Chains was always very open about the heroine addiction that eventually killed him, and many of the bands fans (including this one) got tired of the songs about smack. Now and then we'd hear that Layne was in rehab, that he was trying to get clean and sober. It was always to no avail. Sometimes, I suppose before a rehab stay, Staley would write honestly and openly about the mess he was making of his life with his addiction. This song is the best track on the band's 1994 EP.
Hey, I aint never coming home
Hey, I'll just wander my own road
Hey, I cant meet you here tomorrow
Say goodbye, don't follow
Artist: Ben Folds Five
Album: Whatever And Ever Amen
This is just one perfect little album. Recorded live in the studio, Whatever… features some rollicking good piano from Ben Folds and outstanding support from his guitarist and drummer. This is the kind of album that my generation may have needed in order to realize what was so special about those first few Elton John albums in the early 70's.
Ben Folds is known for smart, funny, acerbic lyrics … and that's the kind of content that dominates the album. So it's something of a surprise that the album's closer is so stark.
Don't you know I'm numb, man.
I cant feel a thing at all.
'Cause its all smiles and business these days
And I'm indifferent to what I've lost.
Song: "My Curse"
Artist: Afghan Whigs
Afghan Whigs made a name for themselves by combining soulful arrangements, jangling rock guitars, and lyrics that were often shocking and blunt. They didn't stray from that formula on their 1993 release, which ended up being the band's strongest set.
One track in particular, "My Curse," was really very confessional on the part of lyricist and singer Greg Dulli. In fact, he found the song too painful to sing. A guest female vocalist was brought in to sing the lead vocal for that track on the album, changing the perspective enough that Dulli could bear to record it.
Hurt me, baby.
I flinch so when you do.
Your kisses scourge me.
Hyssop in your perfume.
Oh I do not fear you.
And slave I only use as a word to describe
The way I feel when I'm with you.
Song: "Christmas Morning"
Artist: Lyle Lovett
Album: The Road To Ensenada
This was the album that Lyle released after his highly publicized break-up with his former wife, Julia Roberts. I think that we fans knew to expect some painful songs. I don't think, though, that anyone was prepared for the frank and often brutal sting that many of these songs conveyed, especially the darkest track of Lovett's career (so far).
The girl at the grocery, she's pretty. Seems nice.
She looks right through me with eyes cold as ice.
She never answers when I ask her name.
She only says I should have a great day.
But, hey, what could she mean by that?
Perhaps I'm the fool she takes me for.
Not anything more.
Song: "Perfect Blue Buildings"
Artist: Counting Crows
Album: August And Everything After
On paper, the album should be unlistenable. On paper, it's one depressing dirge after another, with two upbeat rock songs ("Mr. Jones" and "Rain King") sticking out like a pair of sore thumbs. If it weren't for the striking and memorable arrangements, and if it weren't for the best set of lyrics of Adam Duritz's career, this album surely wouldn't have succeeded. For my money, the best track on the album is "Perfect Blue Buildings," as honest an expression of weariness as has ever been recorded.
Its 4:30 a.m. on a Tuesday.
It doesn't get much worse than this.
In little rooms
In the middle of these lives which are completely meaningless.
Song: "Dirty Day"
It does take a certain courage to write honestly about your life when things are going well. Especially if you're a rock star. Imagine the dilemma U2's Bono faced while recording the band's 1993 follow-up to the highly successful Achtung Baby. Write about the joys of being a rock-star and you might seem cocky, only a notch above David Lee Roth at best. But, if you complain about being a rock-star, you're just another Eddie Vedder-style whiner. What do you do?
Thankfully, Bono is a skilled lyricist. Yes, rich and successful people have their downtimes, too. Apparently, Bono knows something about a life lived in the shadow of an abusive father. Nobody, rich or poor, ever quite gets over that. As always, Bono expressed himself with aplomb and universal appeal.
You're looking for explanations.
I don't even understand.
If you need someone to blame
Throw a rock in the air
You'll hit someone guilty…
Wake up. Some things you can't get around.
I'm in you. More so when they put me in the ground.
Artist: Annie Lennox
Did anyone really expect Annie Lennox to have such an amazing career after the Eurythmics broke up? I didn't. I really didn't give her much of a second thought, so I was amazed when I actually paid attention to her first solo album and realized that it was outstanding.
What's more, the first single from that debut album was a masterpiece of regret and candor. As the song builds, Annie's crescendo ends with heartbreaking vocals and deeply resonate message about the regret that plagues many of us in our later years.
This is the book I never read.
These are the words I never said.
This is the path I'll never tread.
These are the dreams I dream instead…
And these are the years that we have spent.
And this is what they represent.
And this is how I feel.
Do you know how I feel?
'Cause I don't think you know how I feel.
I don't think you know what I feel.
I don't think you know what I feel.
You don't know what I feel.
Song: "Sunday Morning Coming Down"
Artist: Johnny Cash
Album: Sunday Morning Coming Down
Part of the reason that so many of Layne Staley's (mentioned above) lyrics about addiction and substance abuse never resonated with me (with the noteworthy exception of the song listed above) was that he flatly glamorized drug use. Oh, yes, he presented his addiction as a sad and troubling thing … but he also seemed to see himself as somehow romantic and admirable; sort of a Jack Kerouac for the grunge generation. Layne Staley might have had the experience necessary to sing about addiction, but he didn't have the authority to make the songs speak to everyone.
Johnny Cash had that authority. Partly because his big, booming voice just commanded any listener's attention … but also because Cash had cleaned up and stayed clean. Unlike Staley, Johnny Cash's regret about his drug-addled past was real, lasting, and life-changing. So when Johnny Cash released a song about the hopelessness of addiction, you knew that you were hearing truth. Of all of Cash's songs from that well-remembered perspective, my favorite is the title track from his 1972 album.
Well, I woke up Sunday morning
With no way to hold my head that didn't hurt.
And the beer I had for breakfast wasn't bad,
So I had one more for dessert.
Then I fumbled in my closet through my clothes
And found my cleanest dirty shirt.
Then I washed my face and combed my hair
And stumbled down the stairs to meet the day …
In the park I saw a daddy
With a laughing little girl that he was swinging.
And I stopped beside a Sunday school
And listened to the songs they were singing.
Then I headed down the street,
And somewhere far away a lonely bell was ringing,
And it echoed through the canyon
Like the disappearing dreams of yesterday.
On a Sunday morning sidewalk,
I'm wishing, Lord, that I was stoned.
'Cause there's something in a Sunday
That makes a body feel alone.
And there's nothing short of dying
That's half as lonesome as the sound
Of the sleeping city sidewalk
And Sunday morning coming down.
Song: "That Lucky Old Sun"
Artist: Ray Charles
Album: Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music
Nobody else could have gotten away with it. When Ray Charles announced to his record company that he planed to follow up a string of successful pop and soul recordings with a country and western album, people were stumped. Why? Why on earth?
Well, because Ray grew up in the American south and loved the music he'd grown up with. And, because Ray recognized something in that music that he wanted to convey to his audience. There was a pain in many of the best of those songs, and he knew and loved the people who'd felt it. He wanted to tell their stories.
Ray Charles sings this song with a genuine, emotional weight. Listen to it and it's easy to forget that he went blind as a child. I've heard nothing, nor have I ever read anything, that so clearly conveys what it's like to work a difficult and unrewarding job, feel unappreciated, and see no end in sight. Ray's eyes might have been blind, but his remarkable performance of this song makes it obvious that he had seen into the abyss.
The lyrics, in their entirety:
Up in the morning.
Out on the job.
I work like the devil for my pay.
But that lucky old sun's got nothing to do
But roll around heaven all day.
I fuss with my woman. I toil for my kids.
Sweat 'til I'm wrinkled and gray.
While that lucky old sun's got nothing to do
But roll around heaven all day.
Dear Lord above, don't you see I'm pining?
Tears all in my eyes.
Send down that cloud with a silver lining
And lift me up to Paradise.
Show me that river, take me across.
Wash all my troubles away.
Like that lucky old sun, with nothing to do
But roll around heaven all day.
Ray Charles. Johnny Cash. Annie Lennox and U2 and Afghan Whigs and Alice In Chains, etc. If you'll excuse me, I have a CD to burn.
And thank you for indulging a fat ol' redneck who's had a rough week.
While I sincerely wish you a happy birthday, I can tell you from the perspective of 64, that there are a great many good birthdays after 38. I remember my 33rd, which was the birthday after my till-then worst year ever, when I felt I'd hit that place where nothing would ever be as good as 30. Wrong!
I know that the genre may not be your favourite, but Lucinda Williams really knows how to mope, and most of the cuts on Cry, Cry, Cry make you do that very thing.
Thanks for haunting me, she aaid sardonically.
When I feel down and angry and need to mope, I listen to Arcana. Nice and depressing.
I'm in a state of moping NOW. I'm 60 and looking forward to this year ending with a furry. At first, your mope thing seemed like a simple whine. But as you went into the music - I'm a jazz - hip/hop kind of guy - I saw how wonderful your sense of joy must be in order to see the depths of music you described.
It is some times said that there would be no good without a corresponding evil. The same must be true of happiness. Thank you
Anyway, cheer up, you could always be 40 like Jerry. ;)
Now if you'll excuse me, I need to listen to these songs and think about what you said about using or losing our potential between 20 and 30.
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