Wednesday, March 16, 2005

The bass or the words?

I have two nephews on my side of the family (one on the other—all, of course, beloved). I hear from their father that one boy bounces to the bass while his brother cocks his ears for the lyrics. I don’t know if our beloved toddler is a bass or a lyric girl, but watching a child hear a great song for the first time only reconfirms the wonder of music. The Greatest Hits of the Clash had been on the stereo for a while, but when “London Calling” came on, our beloved toddler went straight to 1979, head banging and all. Last weekend, she practically sobbed when, trying to be considerate, a friend turned down Stevie Wonder’s groovy “I was made to love her” on his car stereo. “That’s my other favorite song,” she said, never having heard it before.

Much as I love a funky bass, the lyrics are the clincher for me. I became fanatical about lyrics at summer camp. With a bad singing voice, I found that I was allowed to sing only if I knew the lyrics—I could help carry the song through the hard parts and then would be tolerated (and glared at to pipe down) during the chorus. As I write this, Jacques Brel is on in the background. My French is just good enough for me to know how much I must be missing, but the songs are unbelievably fantastic: each one creates a small, melancholy world, all fog, concrete, and Gitanes burning down to the butt end. I particularly love “Au Suivant” (Next) in which memories of being humiliated at his army physical are equated with a new girlfriend, who, like that impatient army nurse seems to be appraising him skeptically, “au suivant!” I love the exotic sense of a life of many lovers but, more than that, the fear that one is always vaguely disappointing, not quite what was hoped for.

This sense of inadequacy is a major theme in Terry Castle’s moving, amazing tribute to Susan Sontag from the London Review of Books: "In my own case, Sontag’s death brings with it mixed emotions. God, she could be insulting to people. At the end – as I enjoy blubbering to friends – she was weally weally mean to me!" (Via The Page).

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