Friday, April 24, 2009

The Hunger Artists

Etymologically, the word hunger derives from the Old English hungor, akin to the Old High German hungar, and is related to the Lithuanian word kanka, “torture.” To be hungry means to have an urgent need for food or some other special form of nutrition, but by metaphorical elaboration, hunger has come to refer to any strong desire—“a hunger for success,” for instance, or, as is quite common, hunger for another, an expression of strong sexual desire. “For always roaming with a hungry heart/Much have I seen and known,” wrote Alfred, Lord Tennyson in his poem about the mythic hero Ulysses, although in his poem about the heroic figure, Tennyson invented survivors in addition to Ulysses after the end of the Odyssey as recorded by Homer. Hence hunger refers not only to an urgent need for “food,” as in nourishment, but also to appetite, an appetite that can never be satisfied or satiated. What Tennyson’s Ulysses craves is experience itself, and since experience is boundless, what Ulysses wants is the impossible—that which can never be satisfied. His desire to know is apparently boundless, without limits.

In the same way, sexual desire can never be sated; it is a thirst that can never be quenched. Desire can be understood as a quest, a search or hunt that never ends: “Mouth is alive with juices like wine/And I’m hungry like the wolf,” sings Duran Duran in “Hungry Like the Wolf.” Since hunger is recurring, insistent, and never-ending, the singer speaks of a desire that is “hungry like the wolf”—always and forever seeking more and more, insatiable—no wonder that the word hunger is related to the word torture.

Various Hors d’oeuvres:
Eric Clapton – “Hungry,” No Reason to Cry
Deep Purple – “Hungry Daze,” Perfect Strangers
Duran Duran – “Hungry Like the Wolf,” Rio
Merle Haggard – “Hungry Eyes,” Untamed Hawk: The Early Recordings of Merle Haggard
INXS – “Hungry,” Switch
Van Morrison – “Hungry For Your Love,” An Officer and a Gentleman (OST)
Paul Revere & The Raiders – “Hungry,” Greatest Hits
Bruce Springsteen, “Hungry Heart,” The River
Twisted Sister, “Stay Hungry,” Stay Hungry
White Lion – “Hungry,” Pride

Pillow Talk

“Come on baby, I’m tired of talking,” Elvis sings in “A Little Less Conversation” (in Live A Little, Love A Little), telling his baby he wants “A little less conversation/A little more action please/A little more bite and a little less bark/A little less fight and a little more spark/Close your mouth and open up your heart/And baby satisfy me.” We all know what he means by “satisfy me,” in the same way we know what Mick Jagger means when he complains he “can’t get no satisfaction.” Since the articulation of sexual desire was proscribed by the apparatus of censorship when Elvis and Mick sang about wanting to have sex, it seems appropriate that what can be said, and what can’t, is what songs about conversations are all about. That is, conversation songs are not about having a conversation at all: they are about not having a conversation, being forced to converse about things one doesn’t want to converse about, talking “around” an issue. Elvis wants “a little less conversation,” meaning none, and “a little more spark,” meaning he wants her to use her mouth for something other than conversing. “I shot my mouth off and you showed me what that hole was for,” Chrissie Hynde sings in “Tattooed Love Boys,” and we all know what she means: she wasn’t having a conversation. There’s talk and there’s conversation—talk is reserved for the pillow, and conservation fills up the time before pillow talk. Hence talk is to fulfillment what conversation is to delay. “Let’s talk about love”—yes, but no one ever wants to have “a conversation” about love—as Elvis so astutely observed.

A Few Songs About (Not Having) A Conversation:
Alesana – This Conversation Is Over (On Frail Wings of Vanity and Wax)
Atlanta Rhythm Section – Conversation (Champagne Jam)
Colin Hay – Conversation (Peaks & Valleys)
Simon and Garfunkel – The Dangling Conversation (Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme)
Elvis – A Little Less Conversation (Live A Little, Love A Little)
Lyle Lovett – Private Conversation (The Road to Ensenada)
Joni Mitchell – Conversation (Ladies of the Canyon)
Jason Mraz – Conversation With Myself (Live & Acoustic)
Gary Numan – Conversation (The Pleasure Principle)
Lou Reed – New York Telephone Conversation (Transformer)
Hank Williams, Jr. with Waylon Jennings – The Conversation (Whiskey Bent And Hell Bound)

Thursday, April 23, 2009

April In Paris

Since April is National Poetry Month, why not talk about music and poetry? After all, the month of April figures rather significantly in a famous Modernist poem from the early 20th century, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Eliot’s poem begins with a famous sentence, composed of four lines: “April is the cruelest month, breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/Memory and desire, stirring/Dull roots with spring rain.” Most scholars agree that these lines from Eliot are intertextually linked to the first lines of the Prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales:

Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour . . .

(When April with his showers sweet with fruit
The drought of March has pierced unto the root
And bathed each vein with liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower . . .)

According to, the derivation of the name (Latin Aprilis) is uncertain. The traditional etymology from the Latin aperire, “to open,” in allusion to its being the season when trees and flowers begin to “open,” is supported by comparison with the modern Greek use of ἁνοιξις (opening) for spring. Since most of the Roman months were named in honor of divinities, and as April was sacred to Venus, the Festum Veneris et Fortunae Virilis being held on the first day, it has been suggested that Aprilis was originally her month Aphrilis, from her Greek name Aphrodite (Aphros), or from the Etruscan name Apru.

Thus, while for Eliot (who apparently would prefer the oblivion of winter) April is the cruelest month, for the vast majority of poets April is a month to celebrate. If indeed it is the month honoring Venus, the goddess of Love, then it is also the month of rebirth, renewal and discovery, the month celebrating love and lovers. I know of two bands named after the month of April, April Wine (“Say Hello”) and Making April, but there have been many songs written in homage to April as well.

A Playlist Of Songs Featuring April:
Pat Boone – April Love
Deep Purple – April
Ella Fitzgerald – April in Paris
Ian Moore – April
The Jesus and Mary Chain – April Skies
John Phillips – April Anne
Prince – Sometimes It Snows In April
Ron Sexsmith – April After All
Simon and Garfunkel – April Come She Will
Three Dog Night – Pieces of April

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Bristlecone Pine

I feel a slight bit of guilt in recycling a blog entry from last year, but then again, since today is Earth Day 2009, I think recycling is entirely appropriate. Last year, I wrote in honor of North America's oldest known living tree, the Methuselah Tree, a bristlecone pine estimated to be near 5,000 years old (not the one pictured, although the picture is of a bristlecone pine). I first heard of the bristlecone pine through a song I heard performed by Jim Salestrom about a decade or so ago. In case you didn't know, Jim--originally from Kearney, Nebraska--formed in the mid-1970s a band called Timberline which had a Top 10 chart hit in 1976 entitled "Timberline," a John Denverish-sounding tune about the beauty of the mountains. After Timberline broke up a few years later--I actually had a former member of the band in an English class of mine in the fall of 1982--Jim became a solo artist. Among his many fine albums is The Messenger, which contains "Bristlecone Pine," which I must say is one of the most sublimely beautiful, which is to say, haunting, songs I've ever heard. The song is available on iTunes, with versions by Michael Johnson, Pat Surface, and Nancy Cook, but I guess I prefer Jim's rendition to theirs.

Way up in the mountains on a high timberline
There's a twisted old tree called the bristlecone pine

The wind there is bitter; it cuts like a knife

It keeps that tree holding on for dear life

But hold on it does, standing its ground
Standing as empires rise and fall down
When Jesus was gathering lambs to his fold
The tree was already a thousand years old

Now the way I have lived there ain't no way to tell
When I die if I'm going to heaven or hell
So when I'm laid to rest it would suit me just fine
To sleep at the feet of the bristlecone pine

And as I would slowly return to this earth
What little this body of mine might be worth
Would soon start to nourish the roots of that tree
And it would partake of the essence of me

And who knows what's found as the centuries turn
A small spark of me might continue to burn
As long as the sun does continue to shine
Down on the limbs of the bristlecone pine

Now the way I have lived there ain't no way to tell
When I die if I'm going to heaven or hell

When I'm laid to rest it would suit me just fine

To sleep at the feet of the bristlecone pine

To sleep at the feet of the bristlecone pine

Music and Lyrics by Hugh Prestwood
© Hugh Prestwood Music

I love the image of the bristlecone pine, an utterly pagan conception of eternity, and the way the singer imagines himself achieving eternal life through his body's nourishing of that astonishingly old, gnarled tree. What I also like about the song is the way it enacts a sort of Nietzschean, pre-Christian, concept of religious thought, of a religion that imagines both the soul and eternity, or eternal life, as a part of a natural process, with the images of eternity found in nature itself.

Scientists have refused to disclose the precise location of California's Methuselah Tree, fearing acts of vandalism. I have no trouble with this policy, primarily because the potential vandals are surely misguided, and not for the obvious reasons: they have imagined their relationship with the tree totally backwards. The point is not to take apart the tree, and hence have a sterile piece of eternity; the point is to partake of the tree's existence, to nourish the tree with one's own body, and achieve eternity thereby.

Today marks the third day this week my wife Becky and I have conducted all of our errands by walking; I intend to walk with her when leaves to teach her class in about an hour. I know our acts don't in themselves amount to much, but it's a litte something to do in honor of Earth Day. That, and acknowledge the world's oldest known living organism.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Scene Of The Accident

The recent (April 15) ninety-seventh anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic reminded me of the many popular songs written about disasters. There’s a long tradition in popular music of disaster songs, in which the terrible event serves as a sort of cautionary fable, having a homiletic value (“the story teaches us that…”). I can’t say definitively how many songs have been written over the years about the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, probably over two dozen, but the Titanic event became indelibly associated in the popular imagination with industrial or “man-made” disasters of all kinds—songs about shipwrecks, plane crashes, automobile accidents, and derailed trains, all of which comprise a long precession of misfortune and disaster. And, of course, there are songs about so-called “natural” disasters, such as floods, droughts (Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads), hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes. Probably one ought to include as well the many murder ballads (“Tom Dooley” being a famous example) among disaster songs.

Thus disaster songs form a rather heterogeneous genre, largely about Fate, and hence really about the human response to adversity: courage and cowardice, the instinct for survival and heroic sacrifice. I’ve listed below a few representative songs, and also the amazing soundtrack to the must-see film ATOMIC CAFÉ (1982), which includes songs such as the Golden Gate Quartet’s “Atom and Evil” and the Slim Gaillard Quartette’s “Atomic Cocktail.” According to information at on ATOMIC CAFÉ, some songs the producers wanted to include on the soundtrack, but couldn’t find, included “Atomic Polka” and “Atomic Boogie,” and a song titled “Fallout Shelter” in the “Tell Laura I Love Her” vein, a song about a father telling his son that he can’t bring his girlfriend into the family fallout shelter, so the boy and girl abandon the shelter only to die in the streets.

A Lethal Mix Of Disaster Songs:
Atomic Café (Soundtrack)
The Band – The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
The Bee Gees – New York Mining Disaster 1941
Bloodrock – D.O.A.
The Buoys – Timothy
Johnny Cash – The Wreck of Old ‘97
David Allan Coe – Widow Maker
Jimmy Dean – Big Bad John
Elvis – In the Ghetto
The Everly Brothers – Ebony Eyes
Lefty Frizzell – Long Black Veil
Jan and Dean – Dead Man’s Curve
The Kinks – Life Goes On
Led Zeppelin – When the Levee Breaks
Gordon Lightfoot – The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald
Don McLean – American Pie
Randy Newman – Louisiana 1927
Procol Harum – Wreck of the Hesperus
R.E.M. – It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)
Porter Wagoner – The Carroll County Accident
J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers – Last Kiss