So, the other day I was walking from my office past one of our departmental secretaries when I reached into the candy bowl on her desk and withdrew a little dark chocolate. As I walked away and the cacao-infused treat melted in my mouth, I looked at the wrapper, read the word “bittersweet” and, BOOM, I was suddenly not walking but in some time shift driving the Ford LTD to a band rehearsal with a twelve-string, a fender Blues DeVille amp, and a telecaster in the trunk. The radio was tuned to the local rock station and a track hauntingly hung in the air.
For a moment, I didn’t smell the chocolate I was infusing with saliva, but I felt the cold bite of a Maine winter combined with the slightly acrid, styrofoam character of an old engine burning oil mixed in with the sweet synthetic syrup of antifreeze. Even as I was walking in 95 degree heat, 35 years old, and a college professor smelling more of coffee than smoke, I was also 16 and late to be nowhere.
At first, I thought this song was by Matthew Sweet. Maybe it was the bitterSweet thing or that both bands were minor players on the early alt-rock stage.
My brother and I have both written before about the tactile, olfactory and auditory nature of memory–and especially the way that music can invoke those other aspects of the past as well. I have been especially inspired of late by the similar work of the blog Mixed Tape Masterpiece, but even I was surprised by the sequence of memories that ensued from that one word which transformed from taste, to idea, to song and again to smells of a different type.
The thing that is additionally surprising is that while I enjoyed this song, I never really loved Big Head Todd and the Monsters (even though I really appreciate the name, despite the fact that it sounds like a Muppet band). I didn’t own this album or even have a mix tape with the song on it. Yet, when it came on the radio I enjoyed the singer’s deep, syrupy voice, rich tone and the throaty churn of his syllables.
I fear that I never truly listened to the lyrics. I guess I always thought that the koan-like repetition of the chorus was a little cheesy and, by dint of its repetitions alone, denied any access to deeper meaning. In truth, I guess I ignored the verses altogether. Now, as I listen to them again, I realize that they speak more to my stage of life now than anything I could understand then:
I said I’m older now. I work in a city. We live together.
But it’s different than my dream.
Morning light fills the room. I rise.
She pretends she’s sleeping.
Are we everything we wanted?
This type of navel-gazing, of acknowledging that life is somewhat complete while still wondering if completeness is ever possible, is the stuff of middle-age cynicism and ennui, not the material of passionate adolescence. The difference between dream and reality, even if it is not a difference rife with disappointment, still marks a perspective that fosters honest evaluation against the stark idealism that is more typical of our younger years. In addition, the turn of focus from the first-person of the singer to attributing similar depth to the sleeping lover is again a signal of maturity, of depth.
So, as I reflected on the song, I realized I had misjudged it for the the deceptive simplicity of the chorus (“It’s bittersweet, more sweet than bitter, bitter than sweet / It’s a bitter sweet, surrender”). See, it is the juxtaposition of “surrender” with the cliched non-paradox “bitter-sweet” that effects a statement that begins as banal but ends up insightful, a true reflection of the fact that surrender and acceptance of reality is not the same as failure.
Or something like that.
Here’s another version (and I think I just talked myself into buying the album, almost 20 years later):
It’s bittersweet, more sweet than bitter, bitter than sweet,
It’s a bitter sweet, surrender