Wednesday, April 23, 2008

ifyoubelievein

As a tribute to Love’s masterpiece, Forever Changes (1967), (re) issued on CD on Tuesday this week as a (slightly late) two-disc 40th Anniversary Edition by Rhino Records, I thought I would discuss a song on the album that’s always intrigued me. However...I shall not be discussing one of the album’s more obvious choices. Instead, I’ll discuss a song that, unless I simply missed it, goes unmentioned in Andrew Hultkrans’s otherwise quite compelling monograph (2004) on Forever Changes, published as part of Continuum’s Thirty Three and A Third series of books devoted to “classic” (broadly defined) albums of the Rock Era. The song I wish to discuss is one written by Bryan MacLean and not Arthur Lee, which I suppose explains why it is omitted from Hultkrans’s discussion of the album, so exclusively focused as it is on the mercurial figure of Arthur Lee (1945-2006).

Hultkrans places Forever Changes within the tradition of American apocalyptic prophecy, acknowledging certain unorthodox, or rather heretical, notions in its ideas, particularly gnosticism (I use the lower case rather the upper case in contrast to Hultkrans in order to suggest that gnosticism is hardly a homogeneous set of beliefs that have passed hermetically sealed, or unaltered, through time). I have no difficulty accepting his argument on this matter, as I think he is right, although I might have tried to distinguish religious (orthodox, and hence organized and formalized) thought (whether that be Druidic, Christian, Islamic, or whatever) from spiritual thought, the latter being that which is not properly something that is part of a group or collective experience, more personalized, and hence unorthodox (see my previous entry on the song “Bristlecone Pine”).

At the outset, let me say that I think the compositional styles of the group's two late songwriters, Arthur Lee (primarily) and Bryan MacLean (1947-1998), can be distinguished. In one of our recent email discussions, my friend Tim Lucas speculated that the cryptic qualities of much lyrical content in rock music is rooted in songwriters building up lyrics nonsensically and/or onomatopoeically, using as an example Paul McCartney’s original words for “Yesterday”: “Scrambled eggs, oh my baby, how I love your legs...” In other words, nonsense words and phrases are substituted as syllabic “place holders” during the composition of the melody, with the assumption that the actual set of lyrics will be finalized later. A wonderfully comic enactment of Tim’s idea can be found in David Byrne’s fine film True Stories (1987), in a scene in which John Goodman previews a song he is writing titled “People Like Us.” As he sings the unfinished song to a female friend of his, he is forced to substitute phrases and monosyllables for the unfinished lyrics while attempting to maintain the melody: “In 1950 when I was born, papa...I haven’t written this verse quite yet...Six feet tall in size 12 shoes...na, na, na, na, na, na, people like us.”

Given this insight into lyrical composition, I think it is therefore possible to distinguish between songs written by Arthur Lee and by Bryan MacLean (setting aside the obvious designation of authorship by the use of the proper name, of course) simply by examining the formal qualities of the lyrics. I’m especially interested in Bryan MacLean’s song “Old Man,” which has neither the “stream-of-consciousness” features of most of Lee’s songs on the album, nor their rather fanciful, nonsensical aspects, either (“Oh, the snot has caked against my pants, it’s turned to crystal”). According to information published on his website, Bryan MacLean did not declare his actual religious conversion until December 1970, but I think a close look at his song “Old Man” reveals the process had begun years earlier. I especially like the way the lyrical material is structured in the song, so that the meaning of events mentioned early on can only be fully understood by events recounted later (this idea is discussed further below):

I once knew a man
Been everywhere in the world
Gave me a tiny ivory ball
Said it would bring me good
Never believed it would until
I have been loving you

Dear old man
He’d seen most everything
Gave me a piece of good advice
Said it would do me well
I couldn’t really tell until
I have been loving you

Now it seems
Things are not so strange
I can see more clearly
Suddenly I’ve found my way
I know the old man would laugh
He spoke of love’s sweeter days
And in his eloquent way
I think he was speaking of you
You are so lovely
You didn't have to say a thing

But I remember that old man
Telling me he’d seen the light
Gave me a small brown leather book
Insisted that he was right
I only heard him slightly
Til I heard you whisper
Took you up all in my arms

Dear old man
Wise old man
Fine old man, now

I once: “Once,” as in “Once upon a time,” reveals at the outset that we are in the realm of parable, the extended use of analogy in narrative form. The fact that the “old man” of the title is unnamed (remains a common rather than proper name) is in this regard a reiteration of the song's parabolic purpose; the “old man” is explicitly associated with worldly experience (“been everywhere…seen most everything”) but seems to be, remarkably, unjaded by his vast experiences. “Old man” will also come to suggest the wisdom that comes only through age ("Wise old man"). The significance of the "old man" is not that he is a close friend, and hence does not need to be properly named; rather, his importance is the symbolic gift(s) he bequeathed to our singer. Moreover, the fact that he is "old" suggests that the opposite is true of our singer (only someone young would remark upon the man being older, on his old age).

A tiny ivory ball: Ivory, of course, is a highly prized and extremely valuable substance. It is possible to understand the “tiny ivory ball” to be a reference to the ball Christ is often depicted as holding in his left hand in Medieval and Renaissance art, interpreted as a symbol of His power over the world (I've included for the purposes of illustration an image of the painting attributed to Michelangelo titled Salvator Mundi, “Savior of the world”). The ball in His left hand is interpreted as signifying his dominion over the entire world (which, I'll note in passing, reveals that Medieval Europeans did not, in fact, believe the world was "flat," a piece of sheer legerdemain). The point is not that our singer is Christ, but that he's been given a symbolic gift of great value. The meaning of the gift lies in its resemblance to the ball Christ holds in his left hand, not that it is that ball.

I have been loving you: An interesting grammatical construction, as one would think the line would read, “I had been loving you,” or “I’d loved you.” The identity of “you,” of course, is ambiguous, and remains so. If “you” were capitalized throughout, the identity would be clearer, I think, but in any case the meaning of the utterance, "I have been loving you," is that the love is not a recent development, but one that has been ongoing for some time. It may also mean that our singer was only made consciously aware of the fact that he has been loving the unnamed "you" for quite some time, but only after the old man's presence made the reality of the love manifest. In other words, I could say, "I have been loving you," a confession that the love has always been there, but only at this very moment did I become consciously aware of the love I have for you. Freud would probably refer to such a moment of (re)cognition an instance of the sudden awareness of one's "reaction formation," the conscious denial of a truth which one's behavior has actually confirmed.

A piece of good advice: A symbolic gift of value yet again, although we are left to speculate what, precisely, the "piece of good advice" is. However, certain translations of the Bible in the late 60s and early 70s carried not the title Bible but rather, Good News.

I can see more clearly/Suddenly I’ve found my way: Religious conversion is frequently metaphorically presented as a person's finding the right path (think of the lyric in “Amazing Grace,” I was lost but now am found...) and seeing clearly, as in better understanding (...Was blind, but now, I see). The word sin is actually a ancient term taken from the practice of archery: to sin is to be off-the-mark, to miss the bullseye, to be off-target. The archetypal figure for conversion, of course, is Saul of Tarsus: blinded by the light of God, he is compensated for his loss through greater knowledge and insight (“inner seeing”), and becomes Paul the Christian apologist. Symbolically, through the change of his name to Paul, he announces his new identity to all the world. Additionally, Dante begins his Inferno with the image of himself as lost in a dark wood:

In the middle of the journey of our life
I came to myself within a dark wood
where the straight way was lost. (J. D. Sinclair)

Danteworlds glosses Dante’s decision to begin the poem in a dark wood as follows:

The dark forest--selva oscura--in which Dante finds himself at the beginning of the poem (Inf. 1.2) is described in vague terms, perhaps as an indication of the protagonist’s own disorientation. The precise nature of this disorientation--spiritual, physical, psychological, moral, political--is itself difficult to determine at this point and thus underscores two very important ideas for reading this poem: first, we are encouraged to identify with Dante (the character) and understand knowledge to be a learning process; second, the poem is carefully structured so that we must sometimes read “backwards” from later events to gain a fuller understanding of what happened earlier.

Characteristic of Dante's way of working, this “dark wood” is a product of the poet's imagination likely based on ideas from various traditions. These include the medieval Platonic image of chaotic matter--unformed, unnamed--as a type of primordial wood (silva); the forest at the entrance to the classical underworld (Hades) as described by Virgil (Aeneid 6.179); Augustine's association of spiritual error (sin) with a "region of unlikeness" (Confessions 7.10); and the dangerous forests from which the wandering knights of medieval Romances must extricate themselves. In an earlier work (Convivio 4.24.12), Dante imagines the bewildering period of adolescence--in which one needs guidance to keep from losing the "good way"--as a sort of "meandering forest" (erronea selva).

Other popular songs using similar language: Johnny Nash, “I Can See Clearly Now,” or the old gospel standard, "The Unclouded Day," covered by Don Henley on his first solo album.

Love’s sweeter days: In contrast to our singer, the old man is beyond sexual desire, the physical expression of erotic love; all passion is spent. Here’s Tristran in Tennyson's Idylls of the King, speaking to Iseult: “May God be with thee, sweet, when old and gray, / And past desire!” Remember that there is sexual love, or eros, and a "higher" love, Platonic, chaste, and done in good faith: caritas ("charity").

And in his eloquent way/I think he was speaking of you: Do not be fooled into thinking that the “you” being addressed is necessarily the singer’s “lover” in an erotic sense. Indeed, the use of love in this song seems idealized in the Platonic sense. The lyrics are deliberately ambiguous on this point, and besides, religious conversion is often imagined figuratively in physical terms--even sexual. Notice the figurative language in the following poem by John Donne (“Batter my heart, three-person'd God...”), with its use of terms such as “enthrall” (a double entendre meaning to enslave or to enchant, beguile) and “ravish” (to be taken sexually by force):

Batter my heart, three-person’d God; for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn and make me new.
I, like an usurpt town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy:
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

You are so lovely/You didn't have to say a thing: “You” remains silent and mute throughout, the object of attention and desire, but “lovely” as well, rather like a picture--"pretty as a picture." To me, an unavoidable association with the image of silent loveliness is the subject of Da Vinci’s sphinx-like figure in the painting titled Mona Lisa.

The light: Again, the use of the metaphor of seeing as religious awakening and understanding, although the phrase can mean knowledge in a general sense. Additionally, Jesus Christ is "the light of the world."

A small brown leather book: As in the use of the term “old man,” here again is the substitution of general terms (common nouns/names) where one might expect a proper name (e.g., “Bible”). Nonetheless, the deliberately vague identity of the book doesn't compromise what we are to understand is its great value. The phrase, small brown leather book, allows us to associate the word “book” with wisdom (just as we associate wisdom with the “old man”). Still, the book, made of brown leather, presumably rules out a math textbook, phone book, match book, sociology textbook, and so on, and activates the inevitable association of the word “leather” with the word “Bible.” Is the old man to be understood as a preacher, a minister, a priest? Or simply a mysterious wanderer who passed on to our narrator the wisdom he had acquired through his travels, written down (contained) in the book?

Til I heard you whisper/Took you up all in my arms: These lines are delivered at the climactic, emotional peak of the music. The use of “whisper” suggests the personal nature of his religious experience, although the word is (again) sufficiently ambiguous to also allow us to imagine his lover whispering the sweeter things of love in his ear (The Beatles: “Do You Want To Know a Secret?” The answer: “I’m in love with you”). "Til I heard you whisper" also suggests "the calling" that accompanies any kind of profound religious conversion. Why is it a whisper, a calling? Because God doesn't mail letters to his chosen: he speaks. “Took you up all in my arms” speaks both to the embrace of a loved one but also the full embrace of an idea, the act of surrendering physically to an overwhelming desire, the fulfillment of an emotional need, a reconciliation, the end of a powerful struggle, the embracing act of antagonists at the end of a long battle.

Dedicated to the memory of Bryan MacLean and Arthur Lee

1 comment:

lunarbot said...

It's a fantastic, mesmorising song. You can listen to it over and over and still find something new. It reminds me of the music of Brian Wilson (Beach Boys) when he was at his peak writing the Pet Sounds album. But "old man" has even better lyrics than those found on Pet Sounds and is very mysterious and engaging.


I also think that is about religion. You have remember that they took a lot of acid in the 60s which helped their creativity somewhat. Good essay, anyway.