Pop Imperfection: Every Rose has its Thorn?

“Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew” – Jack Gilbert

In the three minutes or so of the average pop song, there is ample opportunity for mistakes. Large mistakes in lyrics or instrumentation make some songs seem like bad ideas from the start. Single strange points can be repeated ad nauseam to undermine otherwise effective pieces.

At times, choices that seem terrible and jarring can be repeated enough to wear the listener down, to bully into submission. (Rihanna’s repeated “ella” in “Umbrella” was initially so offensive to me that I tried to turn the radio off every time it came on. My wife made me leave the song on. I can now listen and appreciate the song—even if I still don’t like it.)

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A Song to Die (to)

For the state of death is one of two things: either it is virtually nothingness, so that the dead has no consciousness of anything, or it is, as people say, a change and migration of the soul from this to another place.

Socrates, in Plato’s Apology

To start this blog, we are thinking  about endings. This may be morbid, but to be honest, it is not an uncharacteristic move. Poetry and music have a long and storied relationship with death—from ancient encomia and ritual hymns for dead heroes and gods to modern dirges and songs of commemoration, songs have always marked these critical transitions for those who have passed and, in any way possible, to speak to those who remain. Music communicates on so many different levels—death music feeds and assuages grief and, through its attempt to carve a single, critical moment out of time, effects a sense of timelessness.

While these are important aspects of songs, what I am interested in is something more personal and ineffable. Conversations about music often develop (or devolve) into simple questions: What is your favorite album? What is your favorite song? Anyone who cares about music even casually cannot answer this question the same way twice. So, my solution—and a strategy the Younger J employs in interesting ways—is to come up with contexts. What is the best song to drive to? What is the best song for running?  We all know that Marvin Gaye and Barry White have the market cornered for love-making.

What would be the best song to listen to while dying? I do not mean the music other people would hear in a motion picture version of your life; but rather, if you knew you were dying and you could only listen to one song as your life slipped away, what would that song be? How does one even begin to answer this question? Most of us have no frame of reference for our inevitable ends. Any answer to this question is so wrapped up in issues of personal identity, memory and beliefs about the human condition and the hereafter that it may be dangerous even to try to answer it. Nevertheless, since the Brothers J believe that the music we listen to shapes the people we become and that talking about this music offers unique opportunities to know ourselves and our times better, I will try.

This is, obviously, not the first time I have contemplated my death song. I decided long ago that the best song to die to would be The Talking Heads’ “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)” from Stop Making Sense (1984;  the album version seems a bit stilted and lifeless in comparison). Above average in duration for a pop song (about 4:58), it starts with a characteristic blend of keyboard, rolling percussion, slightly eerie synth sounds, and a rhythm guitar that builds in crescendo until the verse begins. By the time the electric guitar comes in, the song itself is an absorbing topography of complementary sounds. It is impossible for me not to move when I hear those beginning measures.

David Byrne on Hitfix.com

More importantly, David Byrne’s lyrics are untethered to a specific time or place—sufficiently so that the listener may read what he wants to into it. The repetition of the word “higher” and the invocation of a “you” addressee (“and you’re standing here beside me / all long the passing of time / never money, always for love / come on up and say good night”) combined with the alternation between Byrne’s solo lines and a near gospel-choir develops, for me, a sense of the interdependence between the individual and others;  this relationship, in turn, creates a tension between the specific time of the song’s singing and the full life around that it seems to allude to.

The entire song—which is constructed around its rolling beat into a series of breathless crescendos—flirts with ambiguity and uncertainty. The singer expresses desire for love and home but at the same time admits that he is unsure where the place is (“Home is where I want to be / but I guess I’m already there”) or how he came to find the “you” he sings to (“I can’t tell one from another / did I find you or did you find me”). This uncertainty about the basic building blocks of life is projected outside life’s bounds through one of the most poignant lines of the song: “There was a time, before we were born, / if someone asks this is where I’ll be”. Soon after, this space outside of life is invoked again when Byrne and the chorus sing together “you love me til my heart stops / love me until I’m dead”. The song continues, but for me, these two last lines encapsulate its many different meanings.

The universal of this song becomes more powerful when combined with the personal. At the same time as it gathers in all of these different strains, this song triggers in me layers of meaning from its repetitions throughout my life. A flood of memories, beginning with trickles of moments, places, and people, overflows each single new listening to create a collage of my life. The singer’s “you” becomes the woman I love; the singer’s “home” becomes the metaphorical home my memory constructs from so many different places and times; and, finally, the singer’s own uncertainty becomes mine. But this uncertainty is not a pessimistic or depressive surrender; instead, it is a surrender to all of the beauty that life’s unknowns may bear and an acceptance that cherishing that which is temporary is the very act that gives life its most transcendent meaning.
“This Must Be the Place” is a song worth dying to for several reasons. The music itself is interesting—at once calming but rhythmic in a way that you feel that you must be moving somewhere. The song’s structure, even if this seems typical or trite, builds slowly, reaches several moving crescendos, and then fades out, much like a typical life (the applause at the end doesn’t hurt, either). The lyrics, which are a fit match for its myriad sounds, express, at once, both the uncertainty that surrounds life and death and an elegant optimism amid resignation to the end to come.

The song’s voice finds meaning in the “other” who loves him, accepts this love as having an origin that can’t quite be pinned down, and imagines (hopes? insists?) that even at the moment when we look at death—at the uncertainty of what comes after—we find the origin of all that we are in the similarly unknowable place we come from. When I listen to this song, my breaths become regular, my anxieties dissipate, and by its end, no matter how I felt before, I smile. I cannot truly imagine my own death, but this seems like a nice accompaniment.

And you, brother? What do you think of this song? More importantly, would you die listening to it, or can you think of another?

Song for your deathbed


When my brother and I first talked about starting a music blog, one of the first topics we came up with was what song would you want to hear on your deathbed, one last tune for the road that goes on forever….or stops forever, depending on your own philosophy.

Without delving into questions of spirituality, this is a moment you move towards your whole life and you get one shot to get it right. Only the true lover of music would be remotely concerned with this, as people typically pick music for use at their funerals to reflect their personality or whatever, not for the ‘pre-game’ event to actually expiring. What factors does one put into this decision?

Here are my rules, of much importance in this monumental decision.: First off, this is a strictly selfish decision–so no one else’s input matters in the slightest. You are the one dying so it’s your choice. Second, I feel the decision has to try to encompass all of the music you’ve loved your entire life, from your first cd to trading tunes with the homies in the geriatric ward. Lastly, don’t settle for the first tune you come up with, as again, this may be the last time you hear any music and you don’t want to fuck it up.

Contrary to my third rule, I picked the first song that came to my mind when we had this conversation. (Hey, rules were meant to be broken, even if you make them up yourself). I would choose to hear “Mountain Jam” by the Allman Brothers Band from their highly lauded first post-Duane album Eat a Peach. I have so many reasons for this that it hurts my head to think about it, but I’ll try and work through the pain.

First and foremost, it’s more than thirty-three minutes long. This is the longest song I’ve ever been really into and, if you’re making the final transition, I’d imagine you’d want to have as much time as possible to say goodbye to loved ones, ruminate on your life/existence and so on. Many people have this qualm with so-called “jam bands”: the excessive jamming described by my brother once as “musical masturbation”. In some cases, this is certainly true and in other cases, some people will just never be into improvised music that can go on indefinitely. Life is uncertain and can take a myriad of twists and turns, much like this music that I so love.

Another reason is that it’s easily my favorite instrumental ever and damn near close to my favorite live jam just because of the sheer diversity of ill contributions from all band members, especially Duane’s incendiary guitar work. His solos, the last of which I used to drunkenly refer to as the “sky part ” whilst spinning this record late night in college, are a testament to his style and the cornucorpia of influences he picked up over the course of life and as a session musician at Muscle Shoals.

I’ve read that before Duane’s passing, he listened heavily to Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” among other jazz jams which directly influenced their rendition of “Mountain Jam”. It is musically based on a short piece called “There is a Mountain” by the English pop star Donovan. So, they take the basic structure of a pop song and extrapolate in the jazz tradition to create something wholly new, just as Coltrane did with the old song from The Sound of Music.  I’ve always loved the concept of taking something already known and changing it to reflect your own input and thus creating something new. Don’t we all strive to do this in life?

Another reason I love this piece so much is the conglomeration of multiple styles into one free form improvisation that has no genre. They start with a very simple progression and branch out to outer space. Is it blues rock or southern rock? Is it a jam band or a rocking blues band? Is it jazz rock or rock jazz? I’ve always been one to not pay attention to genres and this song gives me a particular thrill as it really can’t be put into any label. I feel it is one of the best meldings of multiple genres into one cohesive piece that has ever been produced. Blues, jazz, English pop, you name it, this tune has got it.

Lastly, I have already used this song, almost always playing the second half of “Mountain Jam” of disc two of Eat a Peach with two of Duane’s best solos ever put down on wax, for moments in of celebration in my life thus far: minor and major things like graduating college, being drunk on a Tuesday night in July whilst grilling steak, and trying out my new speakers with my new turntable.

The song, finally, fits into use for my life’s events and works nicely as a bookend. If only I could go back to my birth and pipe it through the hospital. The nurses would be hippie dancing, the doctors playing air guitar and a brand new me would be stretching out my arms yearning for the ultimate jam.