Monday, October 04, 2004

SMiLE

or: Juxtaposing A Man And His Mystery

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartanlike as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swathe and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it is of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to 'glorify God and enjoy him forever.'"
(Henry David Thoreau, Walden)

ACT I

The man stands on the windy foreshore, ruefully watching his colleagues rush in an ungainly fashion towards the newly-discovered, soil-rich land, impatient to tear it to saleable pieces. He is there as an impartial recorder; it is his role to observe history but not to influence it. Yet, unbeknownst to his fellow conquerors – for he would be burned at the stake if they knew – he is a seer. And standing on the rock which marks the edge of New England he is able to see everything that is to happen, everyone who is to live or die as a consequence of the arrival of the Pilgrims.

The man is not slender but his profile is thoughtful and perhaps even a little wistful. His curiously Oriental eyes catch everything. He is there to make up stories, to sing songs to sing with a flagon of ale around the campfire, but never to confuse them with worship.

Our Prayer
It is apt to herald their arrival in a new land, which they will endeavour to make look as much like the old land as possible, with a common prayer. His brothers are sceptical about the harmonies the singer has given them to chant. Some of them sound suspiciously like diminished fifths – "the Devil’s chord." But the singer is patiently adamant; these harmonies he has heard used by Herr Bach, and are audiences in Europe not already calling him "the Catholic Protestant"?

But even as they pray, he knows that they are already doomed…

Gee
…as they consciously shift from the sacred to the carnal in their plainsong, or he imagines them doing so. He hears every song that is to be written or sung in the next 200 years. An obscure doo wop ("doo wop"? Where did that come from? How did I know that?) group called the Crows sing "How I love my girl," and a dozen years later the singer remembers it, extracts it from the forlorn youth which he is condemned to live a dozen times over.

And then a trombone (Gershwin? Miller? Bill Harris? How could he have known about them?) comes in, plays a solemn fanfare and immediately follows it up with a decided raspberry to usher us forcibly into…

Heroes and Villains
…the singer 65 years hence, somewhere between an Indian reservation and the Mexican border, watching the "innocent girl" with whom he has fallen in love "right in the rain of the bullets that eventually brought her down." But her ghost survives to dance (albeit is laughed at and mocked "in the cantina"). The music is bumptious and upbeat, yet is continuously interspersed with a sadly rebarbative chorale: "Heroes and Villains: Just see what you done(-done)." Initially he thinks to make a sourly euphoric comment on his continued, inexplicable survival: "At three score and five I’m very much alive, I’ve still got the jive to survive with the Heroes and Villains," but by the time he actually nears three score and five he no longer feels the need to underline or underscore the already evident irony of the now unsung line.

The vision ended, the new conquerors get on their bicycles and begin their systematic hostile takeover of America.

Roll Plymouth Rock
But the music is now darker; ominous booming drums and bass sonorities, over which is laid a reproachful chant: "Bicycle rider, just see what you’ve done – done to the church of the American Indian!" Behind that chant are two supplementary ones: one Indian (conquer the people who inconveniently already live there) and one Hawaiian (our conquest shall not be complete until we have reached the other side of the ocean).

Barnyard
Even conquerors have to settle down, lay down roots, and, if necessary (or even if not necessary), act like kids "Jump in the pig pen – next time I’ll take my shoes off."

Old Master Painter/You Are My Sunshine
A gracefully descending artist’s brush of a ‘cello line leads into a quietly howling lament.

"How could you take my sunshine away?"

Perhaps the singer is already seeing how industrialisation will slowly reduce man to the level of an inconvenient red mark on an accountant’s ticksheet. A tenor saxophone laughs at him and the ‘celli subside into the dank, dark earth.

Cabin Essence
The conflict between pastoral idealisation and its dependence upon hard, unfeeling, satiating industry. A banjo plucks idly away, but the needling question "Who ran the iron horse?" will not vacate your mind.

Suddenly industry explodes into life; great undulating cascades of voices and instruments ("Have you seen the Grand Coulee workin’ on the railroad?/Oover and over, the crow cries uncover the cornfield"). The seer sees the underpaid, underfed Chinese workmen employed to build the railway down to San Francisco – those undulating cascades are like prototype cable cars careering through the newly-erected city. Note how the banjo has quietly turned into a sarod; note also the increasing impingement of Eastern tonalities and drones into the song. Above and beyond all, note how America will nurture and feed its new industry – by corralling all the available water from the Sierra hills and the Rockies, taking them down to fill the rich and needless, and how (implicitly) this will lead to the unshakeable belief that the need for water to make money will always take precedence over the human life.

It is hard for the singer to avoid crying, or shooting his fellow passengers before they can do any more damage.

ACT II

The singer realises, of course, that his passengers must be allowed to continue their passage, boring through this country America, because the singer also understands that his work may not be completed as and how he may have wanted it. It is now two generations since the man stood wistfully on Plymouth Rock. People have passed on, or changed. Two of his brothers, the two who seemed to understand his songs more than anyone else, have fallen in the course of their passage; others have drifted away, argued with the singer about the quality and true meaning of his songs, chosen to pursue parallel but unconnectable paths, tried to persuade or force him to abandon his impenetrable personal quest and come along with them. However, he has remained quietly but sturdily resolute, even when he feared that the last drop of his sanity might have been drunk. For he realises that children will be born and that it may prove necessary to enlist their aid in order to realise and complete his work satisfactorily - the issue of children, of course, being at the very cynosure of his work.

Wonderful
"She belongs there left with her liberty/Never known as a non-believer/She laughs and stays in her one, one, wonderful."

Is this the Statue of Liberty? Two gently ascending harpsichords sing a ballad, of innocence lost ("Farther down the path was a mystery") and a person giving herself to the proverbial "non-believer" who "bumped into her one, one wonderful." Ravaged (raped?) she retreats into a state of permanent childhood ("…all that’s left/is a girl who’s loved by her mother and father") and remain content with unquestioning, impersonal worship ("…she’ll/sigh and thank God for one, one, wonderful."

The ineffable indivisibility of the individual.

Song For Children
If all we want is to be an individual.

"Maybe not one. Maybe you too, wonderin’."

The music is now faster-paced, foursquare and poignant – a long-mislaid Christmas organ and a warily jaunty French horn and tuba – over which a piquant little clarinet motif is heard, and above that a choir trying to relocate a future. "Child – the child. Father of the Son. Where is the Father, Son."

What greater punishment is there to be had than knowing that you yourself are "the Father"?

Child Is Father Of The Man
It is time for the transference of authority. But the child has to be persuaded more than slightly placidly. The voices now multiply, all urging the "father of the man" to turn again, turn back…
…and save us?

Surf’s Up
Those maracas, delicately shaken like the last drops of sand gleaned from a polluted beach before the saviour can be drowned. The descending one-note guitar, its precipitous descent aided and supported by a warm underlay of glockenspiel. The baseline of the two mutually supportive pianos, counterbalanced by the softly guffawing horns. Childhood or maturity? Naivety or cynicism? Don’t we just want, or need, to pull everything down?

"Columnated ruins domino!"

In other words, bring everything crashing down in a deliberate and sorely needed wreck. Such an angelic manner of willing bloody destruction, even if it is all metaphorical. But so passionate was this singer to put across this specific message, he was once willing to leap octaves in order to do so. However, he is now getting on; his vocal cords are not as sturdy as they were, so he leaves it to his children to finish the syllable, and moreover do so by creating a new chorale chord to shine a light on the song’s original subtext: now he has lived long enough for his children to be able to convey the message for themselves. But the singer doesn’t forget the lullaby – "Are you sleeping? Brother John?" Or is he just checking anxiously that Brother John’s still alive?

One perfect choral chord – so perfect it could split the second it inhabits – leads us into a piano-led meditation on the decline of the old, and a plea for the rise of the new.

"A dim last toasting,
While at Port, adieu or die.

"A choke of grief, heart-hardened eye,
beyond belief, a broken man too tough to cry."

"The lights are dimming
The lounge is dark
The best cigarette is saved for last
We drink alone
We drink alone"
(from "Transit" by Fennesz; lyrics by David Sylvian)

Note how the singer is still able to reach the high C of "tough," as it is sometimes easier than crying.

But on "too tough to cry," one plateau of this song ends (as a life must end) and the piano then draws a path towards the new.

"Surf’s Up! Aboard a tidal wave…
I heard the word. Wonderful thing! A children’s song."

Upon which the "Child Is Father To The Man" motif echoes, joyfully, from every corner. Life pulled from the claws of death.

"A children’s song – have you listened as they play?
Their song is love and the children know the way."

Who, then, could deny the singer his inalienable right to be allowed to complete his work with the children of others when the concept of renewal of life is the whole point of that work? Is Chartres Cathedral invalid as a building of beauty and unworthy of worship because none of the original architects survived to see its complete and final state? The singer is lucky; he has survived long enough to allow his disciples to help him see the completed picture as it was always meant to be seen, and moreover he has sufficient life remaining in him to be able to bear witness to it.

ACT III

If the singer is to take the elements into account – and when defining a country, earth, wind, fire and air are as important, if not more so, than people in doing so – then he must complete his portrait of America by looking at what man is capable of doing with each of the four elements and how any of them can create or destroy that country. But it is paramount that he remain healthy while he is telling this story.

I’m In Great Shape/I Wanna Be Around/Workshop
He casts an indiscriminate eye over how America is building itself into its own assassin with simple industry cancelling out personal angst.

"Eggs and grits
And lickety split. Look at me jump!
I’m in the great shape of the agriculture!"

It isn’t quite American Gothic but the orchestra plays a Burlington Bertie-style vaudeville (how did he know about THAT?) accompaniment (with some strange, out-of-place echoes). Then quiet piano and vibes by which to sink poisoned cocktails as another song is fished out of the archive of future art: "I Wanna Be Around," a bitter and sneering song in its original form, as jilter turns into jilted; but even here the singer is extremely careful to avoid undue cynicism, so pours unquestioning faith and belief into his delivery of the words: "I wanna be around to pick up the pieces, when somebody breaks your heart." Reach out, he is saying, I’ll be there.

Vega-Tables
Out of the earth comes earthiness; the double entendres ("I’d jump up and down and hope you’d toss me a carrot," "I tried to kick the ball, but my tennie flew right off," "I threw away my candy bar and I ate the wrapper") nevertheless mix breezily with yet more calls to industry ("Cart off and sell my vegetables") and ambiguous calls to health ("Sleep a lot" followed seconds later by "never be lazy"). Happiness? Remember what that tasted like?

On A Holiday
But Hawaii is still in sight, like Lorca’s doomed horseman riding to Cordoba, and ahead of him the singer catches up with some of his former colleagues, who have now turned into pirates (as if they hadn’t been pirates to begin with, as the reappearance of the "Plymouth Rock roll over" motif confirms, interrupted by the singer frantically/encouragingly yelling "Child!"). Or could the singer be singing obliquely of other pirates, those who had been circulating earlier, inferior (because incomplete) versions of his songs?

Too much time may have elapsed for it to matter much now. As the foursquare beat – a vortex reflection of the "Song For Children" rhythm – gives way to sweetly embracing piano and marimbas, the singer lets a glimmer of his innate sadness become visible – "Long, long ago…Long ago." The marimbas recede to half-speed. The wind is blowing him towards another timescale.

Wind Chimes
Such quietude, such suppressed grief. "Though it’s hard, I try not to look at my wind chimes." Why does he not want to look at them? Is their mere sound sufficiently grievous for oppressive memories of an idealised past to be activated?

"Now and then a tear rolls off my cheek." On cue, one of the marimbas does a little downward onomatopoeic curlicue, and throughout the rest of the song both marimbas take turns at weeping, at least until a huge orchestra suddenly invades this most private of spaces, insisting that the singer must get back into the world and finish his work.

Mrs O’Leary’s Cow (fire)

Because behind his back, while he wasn’t looking, the world had begun to burn. The clanging alarms and slide-whistles – the latter so recently carefree in "On A Holiday" – are disquieting enough, but it’s too late; funereal and planet-sized drums plunge us into an abrupt and shocking inferno of ascending and descending strings, screeching and weeping, discordant and destructible. Deep within the music, voices harmonise, like families trapped in the corner of their soon-to-be-incinerated bedroom. This is what the Plymouth Rock has rolled us towards; this is also the sound of columnated ruins playing the roles of dominoes.

The strings eventually burn out to leave a solitary siren, a fuzzed guitar and drums which seem to be systematically and professionally disposing of "unmutuals" with a smart blow of the hammer to selected skulls.

In Blue Hawaii
And yet, of all four elements, the one which has loomed predominantly over this whole work, over the singer’s entire world, is that of water. You can travel thousands of miles for three score and five years and still feel you are on an island. Time, then, to conquer the final outpost; time, in reality, to die.

This climactic song starts with a basso profundo drone, over which the singer dwells in some horror: "Is it hot as hell in here, or is it me? It really is a mystery. If I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take my misery."

But the song soon picks up to become a more amiable jaunt as the singer comes to terms with his imminent extinction. But has he ever reached Hawaii ("There’s a promise we must keep – I’m wonderin’"), and if so, has he passed it without realising he was ever there ("Oh I could use a drop to drink right now. In a waterfall, back there in Hawaii – ")

And then we learn the first part of the awful truth:

"Down in blue Hawaii. So far away from blue Hawaii.
Aloha nui means goodbye."

He is nowhere near the sea. He could be in hell, or more likely he is stumbling through the middle of Death Valley, and can only dream of Hawaii, of water, of life.

We can’t leave the singer there like that to die.

Can we?

That prayer which comes back at the song’s end – the last rites?

Or just the final coup de grace up the sleeve of the artful magician?

Good Vibrations
Remember that stray line: "I lose a dream when I don’t sleep. I’m slumberin’."

What if the singer wakes up, grins maniacally yet seductively at his audience and majestically sweeps away his multi-pocketed coat as if to say to us: "Ah, but you only guessed the half of it. Now you know how everything fits into everything else…but what was the story I was really trying to tell?"

Because the point of his work may be one of no return; because this is a dream being dreamt by someone in an as yet unspecified future; because now we are thrust forward 200, or was that 20,000, years to a song which, even after two generations, still sounds as if it has been bolted to us, the singer’s audience, from the future? Those rotating ‘celli, that theremin (although it could now be a musical saw), the interface of jew’s harp, bass harmonica and discreet synthesiser; a record, a celebration of someone beyond description; a record whose lessons could well have been learned from another musician who stayed behind in the old land, yet a record which in the end could simply be a love song to America ("I don’t know where but she sends me there").

And in the final reckoning, the final chorus, it all makes perfect sense; the elements of the past are glimpsed through the futuristic music – the harmonica, the Indian/Plymouth Rock chanting, the jew’s harp – but they are now ghosts, and the final fade of "Good Vibrations" indicates that the future must be lived, but that history cannot afford to be neglected or ridiculed as irrelevant. For who knows when someone will need to stand upon that uninhabited rock again?

The singer did reach the other side in the end. The West Coast hums with electrodes and gigabytes, new servants rushing in order to enable themselves to view "the rest of the world" through specially selected and filtered screens, eagerly force-fielding inconvenient other people out of their visual range. The crowds in the streets are rapid and fairly desperate. Over at the water’s edge you notice a man, stockily-built, middle-aged. He is not slender but his profile is thoughtful and even a little wistful. His curiously Oriental eyes still manage to catch everything. He has made up his stories and sung his songs. And, more than anything else, as a good and steadfast Protestant he is aware that his work ethic has been satisfied and that the drawing of his treasure map has been completed – a map in which he dares you to find him.

It may perhaps be apposite to end this story with a quotation from another story someone has had to tell – not specifically about America, but a similar story which, though it can only end, as every story must, with death and regeneration, nonetheless represents a parallel search for a land we are not yet wise enough to know:

"Sometimes people leave you
Halfway through the wood.
Do not let it grieve you.
No person goes for good.
You are not alone.
No one is alone"
(Sung by the ghost of the Baker’s Wife in the second half of Into The Woods by Stephen Sondheim)