Friday, December 12, 2008

Jet, Suffragette

My friend Tim Lucas wrote to me last night asking me what I understood to be the meaning of Paul McCartney’s song “Jet,” a song that can be found on Paul McCartney and Wings’ highly regarded album Band on the Run (released December 1973). I answered his query about “Jet” with a rather lengthy response. Shortly after receiving my response, he emailed me back urging me to re-post my email as a blog entry, given all the work I’d put in to it. To be honest, the response didn’t take me a whole lot of time, but having been laid up with a terrible cold the past few days and as a consequence not having the energy to blog for the past several days, I thought I’d honor his suggestion and post my response to him as today’s blog, which hopefully might have the additional benefit of getting me back into the habit of blogging again. I apologize to everyone for having been silent for the past few days, but there have been extenuating circumstances. Hopefully today’s post will make up for my absence from cyberspace.

I’ve tweaked a few things and added some additional thoughts, but what follows is the gist of what I wrote to Tim earlier today. The first set of lyrics below (beginning “Ah Mater . . .”) are the set of lyrics Tim had a specific question about. [Addendum--6:43 p.m. CST: See Tim's comment below. As he indicates, he'd always misunderstood "much later" as "Paul Schrader," and one of his motives for writing to me was to ask me if indeed he had misheard the lyric.] I think the image I’ve included with this blog entry is entirely appropriate, as it is the cover of Rolling Stone No. 153, dated January 31, 1974, featuring Paul and Linda McCartney—an issue of the magazine published just a few weeks after the release of Band on the Run.

Tim -- I’d always heard (I say “always,” although I don’t know from what point I heard this claim) that “Jet” was, in part, a satirical jab at David Bowie and the then trendy androgyny of so-called “glam” rockers. My understanding is that the title “Jet” serves as a dual reference, one to his then wife Linda (as suggested by the lyrics “Jet, I can almost remember their funny faces/That time you told them that you were going to be marrying soon,” and “Jet/A little lady/My little lady . . . yes”) but also as a cloaked reference to Bowie by way of a play on words to the song “Suffragette City” (1972)—a verbal wordplay similar to Bowie’s “The Jean Genie.” According to lyrics reprinted in the 25th Anniversary Edition 2-CD set of Band on the Run, the lyrics are:

Ah Mater want Jet to always love me
Ah Mater want Jet to always love me
Ah Mater . . . much later

“Mater” is the Latin word “mother,” of course, but I think "Mater" is also an old-fashioned British usage for “mother” as well.

Just to confirm this interpretation I did some checking on release dates and such. I pulled out my 30th Anniversary 2-CD Edition of David Bowie's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust—the Ziggy Stardust period being the one in which Bowie was really pursuing his androgynous image, although he had already by this time posed in a dress on the cover of the album The Man Who Sold the World—and it indicates in the liner notes that the 7” single of “Starman”/”Suffragette City” was released on 28 April 1972, that is, well over a year before McCartney began recording Band on the Run in Lagos, Nigeria. Bowie’s album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, was released 6 June 1972, and Bowie started doing his famed act of simulating fellatio on Mick Ronson's guitar during a stage show on 17 June 1972. Subsequently, the cultivated androgyny—and homosexual subtext—of “glam” rock was born (most certainly you know of Todd Haynes’ 1998 film Velvet Goldmine).

Hence I think there’s some to support this interpretation; most certainly particular lyrics support this line of thought. For instance,

And Jet I thought the major was a lady suffragette

“I” (McCartney?) is saying that he initially mistook Bowie to be a female, a “lady suffragette.” “The major,” is a reference to the “Major Tom” of “Space Oddity” and “lady suffragette,” as I indicated earlier, also refers to Bowie via the song “Suffragette City.” And the line,

And Jet I thought the only lonely place was on the moon

would seem to refer to “Space Oddity” as well (“Here am I floating round my tin can/Far above the moon”). In contrast, lines such as, “Jet with the wind in your hair/Of a thousand laces/Climb on the back and we’ll go for a ride in the sky” would seem to refer both to Linda McCartney and his band (their band), Wings.

I think this general line of interpretation is born out by other songs on the album Band on the Run, which may carry allusions to many other songs contemporary to that period, although I haven’t done extensive research on this topic. For instance, I think the title song, “Band on the Run,” alludes to another band popular at the time, particularly in 1973, the year Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon was released:

Well, the undertaker drew a heavy sigh
Seeing no one else had come
And a bell was ringing in the village square
For the rabbits on the run

The lines, “the undertaker drew a heavy sigh” is an allusion to Pink Floyd’s “Time” and the lyrics

The sun is the same in the relative way, but you’re older
And shorter of breath and one day closer to death

The reference to “a bell was ringing” alludes to the famed alarm clocks on Dark Side of the Moon, while the line “For the rabbits on the run” refers to “Breathe”:

Run, rabbit run
Dig that hole, forget the sun

The entire album may be filled with such crafty allusions, but again, I haven’t done extensive research on the subject.

Hope this has been of some use.


Addendum, 7:06 p.m. CST: My wife Rebecca confirms that "mater" is indeed a common British vernacular term for "mother": she says, read your D. H. Lawrence.

Monday, December 8, 2008

The Other Side

Last night I posted a blog entry on the trope of “magic” in popular music, a word used, so I argued, to name various physical and/or emotional effects, from pheromonal sexual excitement to psychotropic drugs. Serendipitously, in this morning’s Los Angeles Times, an article appeared titled “Ghosts, aliens and us” by David Klinghoffer discussing popular belief in the occult and supernatural which, admittedly, is not precisely claiming that there is a popular belief in magic, but it is close enough. Citing various polls to suggest how widespread beliefs in the supernatural are, the author refers to “the impressive diversity within what psychologist William James called ‘the reality of the unseen,’ or Puritan witch-hunter Cotton Mather called the ‘invisible world.’” The author also claims that further evidence of such beliefs is provided by the popularity of George Noory’s “Coast to Coast AM” radio show, which draws 3 million listeners and is dedicated to the sharing of all types of experiences with ghosts, aliens, and garrulous spirits inhabiting the noosphere. Discussing Noory’s Coast to Coast AM, Klinghoffer writes:

Listeners call up, one after another, with personal narratives of what Jewish mysticism would describe as the “other side” of existence. Sure, I’m skeptical about crop circles, conspiracy theories and cryptozoology. However, I’m also sympathetic to the late conservative philosopher and ghost-story writer Russell Kirk, who valued the paranormal for its suggestion that reality consists of more than mundane material processes. I get the persistent sense that something profound is affirmed by the eerie accounts on Noory’s show.

Eventually, one learns what the author means by “something profound”: “the human need to believe in the unseen world.” Another name for this impulse for the “something profound,” I think, is “faith,” but in yesterday’s blog, I chose to refer to it as “magic.” Popular music gives expression to this “unseen or invisible world.” Simon Frith has observed:

It should be apparent by now that people do hear the music they like as something special: not, as orthodox rock criticism would have it, because this music is more ‘authentic’ (though that may be how it is described), but because, more directly, it seems to provide an experience that transcends the mundane, that takes us ‘out of ourselves’. It is special, that is, not necessarily with reference to other music, but to the rest of life. This sense of specialness, the way in which music seems to make possible a new kind of self-recognition, frees us from the everyday routines and expectations that encumber our social identities, is a key part of the way in which people experience and thus value music: if we believe we possess our music, we also often feel that we are possessed by it. Transcendence is, then, as much a part of the popular music aesthetic as it is of the serious music aesthetic. . . . (“Towards an aesthetic of popular music,” 144)

In other words, the more mundane and unfulfilling one’s daily existence—work, labor, the narrowing range of options our everyday life offers us—the more attractive “the reality of the unseen,” the sheer potential of transcendence, becomes. “You Can Do Magic” the song by America avers, but perhaps that expresses more of a wish or hope than a valid option “life offers.” Is it a song about faith? You decide. Here’s the opening lyric: “I never believed in things that I couldn’t see/I said if I can’t feel it then how can it be/No, no magic could happen to me/And then I saw you.”

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Do You Believe in Magic?

The word “magic,” in its adjectival form—the form used in most popular music—means to make or produce “as if by magic,” that is, to have the conjuring power of a magus, that is, a magician. For instance, you know of Madame Rue, that gypsy with the gold-capped tooth, the one who’s got the pad down on Thirty-Fourth and Vine—she uses magic, and she is a (female) magus. In “Love Potion No. 9,” for instance, the singer tells us, “She [Madame Rue] looked at my palm and she made a magic sign/She said, ‘What you need is Love Potion No. 9’.” Too bad: the singer ended up kissing a cop down on Thirty-Fourth and Vine. Such is the power of magic.

The word magic is derived from the Middle English magik, from Old French magique, from Late Latin magica, from Latin magicē, from Greek magikē, from feminine of magikos, of the Magi, magical, from magos, magician, magus. And magus, of course, is the root of the word “magician.” In popular music, magic is mystery (and fear), magic is enchantment, magic is power, magic is a drug-induced hallucination (and the accompanying trip), magic is the ecstasis of erotic fulfillment. Aleister Crowley referred to the orgasm as “sex magick,” perhaps an intentional conflation of the categories of erotic and spiritual love. Popular musicians frequently confuse the erotic and the spiritual, revealing that as a culture we seek in profane love what we can only get from religious belief. To confirm these various uses, seek out and listen to the following songs:

America, “You Can Do Magic” The Complete Greatest Hits
Badfinger, Magic Christian Music (album, 1970)
The Beatles, “Magical Mystery Tour” Magical Mystery Tour (album, 1967)
The Cars, “Magic” Heartbeat City
Nick Drake, “Magic” Made to Love Magic
The Drifters, “This Magic Moment” All-Time Greatest Hits
Electric Light Orchestra, “Strange Magic” Face the Music
Fleetwood Mac, “Black Magic Woman” English Rose
Heart, “Magic Man” Dreamboat Annie
The Lovin’ Spoonful, “Do You Believe in Magic” Do You Believe in Magic
Ennio Morricone, “Magic and Ecstasy” Exorcist II: The Heretic (soundtrack)
Van Morrison, “Magic Time” Magic Time
Pilot, “Magic” Anthology
The Police, “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” Ghost in the Machine
Frank Sinatra, “That Old Black Magic” Come Swing With Me!
Snakefinger, “Magic and Ecstasy” (Morricone cover) Chewing Hides the Sound
Steppenwolf, “Magic Carpet Ride” Steppenwolf the Second
Tyrannosaurus Rex, “By the Light of the Magical Moon” Beard of Stars
The Who, “Magic Bus” Magic Bus