Sunday, April 12, 2009

"Stay With Me"

Many, many years ago, I got to live a dream. Through my brother, I met a guy that ran a pirate radio station - no, perhaps *the* pirate radio station - and he asked me to work as a DJ for this station.
Understand, this was in the mid to late 1980s, before the wholesale liberalisation of the airwaves, when pirates still contributed something to the agenda (perhaps they still could today).
Naturally, I jumped at the chance, and one Valentine's Day I found myself shivering on the deck of a tiny fishing boat as it ploughed its way offshore. I landed, seasick and disoriented, on a 200 foot ship parked in the middle of the English Channel, and three hours later, I was doing my first show.
At this distance of years, it is a fond, warm memory, a consolation even; and I classify as one of my more "rebellious" acts. As a non-Britisher, I risked being tossed out of the UK for good if the authorities came after me. So I lived those few months extra-hard. I drank in every moment, even when the weather chased me into the darkest bowels of the rusting, tired old ship. I watched St Elmo's Fire dance around the aerial masts, I learned to drink coffee and tea with salt as well as sugar, I even got to taste horseflesh.
And I spent hours, days, listening to music. A kid in his early 20s, a music nut, let loose among 15,000 or so records, with copious facilities to play, record, mix and enjoy.
I got to know real strangers, the motley assortment of characters who were drawn on board simply to play the music they loved for hundreds of thousands of people they'd never meet. Some of us were serial offenders, jumping from pirate station to pirate station, others were kids with the DJ bug who just had to get into "the business" and for all I know, still are in the business.
We'd watch for supply boats when the beer and cigarettes ran out, we'd wave at the ferries passing every day, we'd even flick a finger at the Air Force jets that once in a while would buzz the ship.
But most of all, we sat together and each of us chortled inside at cocking a snook at The Man, at our daring and naughtiness, reveling in the companionship that comes from a shared risk. And when my time was up, I left without a backward glance.
Last week, I went to see "The Boat That Rocked", Richard Curtis' film based on the pirate station that I once worked on. It wasn't the ship, the time, the atmosphere that I remembered - it was long before, in the station's heyday, but the ethos, the feeling was the same.
Yes, there was nostalgia, some sadness that the era has passed, but most of all, a warmth in remembering the oh-so simple act of rebellion that took me out to sea.
I still have about ten cassette mix tapes that I made on the boat, songs that I discovered for the first breathless, delicious time in the warm cabin that served as the record library. Many of them are SongsWithoutWhich and are chronicled here.
But this one isn't. It's actually a song from the film I saw last week, and so I can't claim it was a selection based on my impeccable taste, nor a song that resonates with personal meaning. It's just a wonderful song, whose chorus I recall dimply from some radio show many years ago and which, when it cropped up in the film, gave me one of those "ahhh" moments when a long-forgotten memory comes streaking to the front of your mind.
I won't ever associate this song with my time on the radio station, but I do now associate it with my act of remembrance of that time and so it is, tangentially on one level at least, a SongWithoutWhich.
It doesn't hurt that Lorraine Ellison has a voice that does both the caressing and the paint-stripping in equal measures, and that it is a simply fantastic song. 'nuff said.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

"Downtown Train"

What's happened to the love song over the years is a pretty exact mirror of what's happened to society at the same time. Everything becomes more explicit, more obsessive, more dysfunctional. And so have the songs.
Let's review somoe evidence. In 1950, Nat King Cole sang "Mona Lisa" which went a little like this:
"Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa, men have named you/You're so like the lady with the mystic smile/Is it only 'cause you're lonely they have blamed you/For that Mona Lisa strangeness in your smile?"
Beautiful, isn't it? Elegant, restrained, and with a hint of sadness beneath. Textured and literate too.
So now we fast forward a decade, and here are the Beatles:
"Something in the way she moves/Attracts me like no other lover/Something in the way she woos me/I don't want to leave her now/You know I believe in how."
Equally elegant, equally beautiful and George Harrison's little guitar break is gorgeous.
But then, later in the song comoes this:
"You're asking me will my love grow/I don't know, I don't know/Stick around, and it may show/But I don't know, I don't know."
Suddenly love, commitment and the desire to cleave to one another became conditional, or at least uncertain, as the changes wrought in the 1960s filtered through into our very simple view of ourselves and our emotional relationships. Suddenly the world eas more of a playground and we didn't need to cleave to our partner quite as much as our parents did.
Now we hit the 1970s. For the purposes of demonstration, I'll take Billy Joel:
"Don't go changing, to try and please me/You never let me down before/Don't imagine you're too familiar/And I don't see you anymore."
Lordy! Suddenly the love song has admitted to the possibility of codependency, and that we have to really, really work at being just right for our partner. Why? Because they have an alternative now. Anyone who's read Tim Harford's "The Logic of Life" should understand: relationships have become a bargain struck in the market place. We take someone on because we calculate the costs and the benefits of being with them and for a while at least, the costs outweigh the benefits. For a while.
Still with me? On to the 1980s, then:
"I wanna know what love is/I want you to show me/I wanna feel what love is/I know you can show me."
Geez, talk about projection. So now we've all become emotional illiterates who can't identify our own feelings?
"If I should stay/I would only be in your way/So I'll go, but I know/I'll think of you ev'ry step of the way."
What, so now we didn't know we loved someone until we split up? Big oops. (And yeah, I know it was written a lot earlier.)
Anyway, what I'm trying to say here is that the love song has mirrored our own emotional decay, to the point where love songs these days are more about obsessive codependency than soulful paeans to the one we purely, simply, love.
And I will now present to you what is, to me, the ultimate love song.

It's simple, it's real. The characters and the situations may not be pretty, but they're real. Honest. "Downtown Train" is a story rather than a shopping list of one person's lusts and insecurities. The line "Will I see you tonight/On a downtown train" could have come from a black & white film, a bygone era.
There's desire, sure, but it's emotional desire and not physical. The song aspires to something better, greater than so much of what we are forced to listen to these days. And it gives not a fig for codependency, obsession, need. It's generous, open, properly loving. And in a day, a time like this, it's a consolation to know that there are people who still love like that.