Can anyone tell me where the last year went? I wasn’t tired of listening to last year’s mix yet, and here it is time to do it again? I really don’t know how that happens. But make a mix I did, and I dropped it in the mail yesterday, so Shenry, Ghost, and June, you should have it shortly.
For those of you who have no interest in my mix CD, which I am about to discuss in depth, I offer you this fantabulous video about a very dangerous affliction called the “Man Cold.” I would have to say it’s a piercing dramatization that hits the nail right on the head. For the rest of you, onward!
The theme of this year’s mix was “Beauty in the Dark,” and the idea came to me when I thought about some of my favorite songs. It’s always the sad ones that touch me more deeply. There’s something about a minor key that gets to me, and I think I have a propensity for melancholy; maybe it’s my poetic side. And I’m a Scorpio. Who knows? But to quote the inimitable Elton John, “sad songs say so much.” Despite their sometimes dark lyrics, the music itself is often beautiful, and that, I think is something worth thinking about. When pain becomes beauty, in the form of art, we are witnessing a miracle.
Stars, too, are brightest in darkest night, and sometimes the beauty of things strikes us more poignantly in dark times. So I thought about songs that express what we consider the emotional dark side—sadness, anger, hurt, frustration, regret, cruelty—but do so beautifully. That was how I approached this project.
The cover photo above came from a recent NASA Picture of the Day. In addition to it being a gorgeous picture, it is personally significant to me and I really feel like it found me, rather than the other way around. That’s Pigeon Point Lighthouse, north of Santa Cruz, California. It was the last daytrip Antiguo and I had together, over Memorial Day weekend 2006. It was sunny, but windy and brisk out there that day. He was wearing his usual shorts; what a tough guy. I was wearing long shorts, a pullover, and I was shivering. Were he here, he’d be in on this swap. I missed him especially as I put it together.
Anyway, I loved the picture, and it was perfect for the theme. The shot was taken the one day a year they light the lighthouse old-style, with kerosene lamps. It’s a great old lighthouse, but this same picture wouldn’t have been nearly as stunning in the day; it is only beauty in the dark.
I tried really hard in this mix to include songs less than 30 years old, but what can I say? I like the classic stuff, and I gotta be me. I have given serious thought in recent days to the possibility that perhaps I was actually born in the ‘50s, died very young, and, having been gypped, decided to come back immediately, reincarnated in time to be born in 1971. It would explain my musical tastes, and the fact that most of my dearest friends are/were a generation older than I. I say all this as I sit here in my tie-dyed shirt, flared jeans, and clogs, listening to George Harrison and Dusty Springfield.
Here is the playlist, and my thoughts about the chosen songs.
“Furnace Room Lullabye” (Neko Case)
Neko Case writes some dark stuff, and I’m curious about her life. I sense there is a lot of pain and loss in it, though whether that’s because there is more than the rest of us get, or she just expresses it more, I cannot say. She veils her pain in poetry, but being a poet myself, I know that trick. I cannot decode her songs entirely, but I sense what is behind them. I like the opening, and the ending—it is a lamentation, but I hear a bit of defiance in it, too. And it evokes Poe’s “The Tell-tale Heart,” too, I think. Literary. I like literary.
“Manha de Carnaval” (Luiz Bonfa)
A classic of Brazilian music, this particular version is especially beautiful. For a song about the morning of Carnival, its tone is unexpectedly sad. This slowed down version, with the trumpet solo, gets me where I live. It is sad, but it is so gorgeous.
“A Dream Goes on Forever” (Todd Rundgren)
I was listening to Todd Rundgren’s Greatest Hits album I picked up not too long ago, and this song jumped out at me, speaking to me at a time when perhaps I was ready to listen. It recognizes the impermanence of things, and that endings are inevitable, but there is hope in it, and hope is always beautiful, particularly when darkness has enveloped you. The dream does go on forever.
“Mess” (Ben Folds Five)
Ben Folds has an amazing knack to create musically beautiful character portraits of flawed people. I guess that is to say that he is an accurate observer of humanity. This song is pretty, and the production is pretty beefy, compared to the band’s two previous albums, but it works. It is a song about regrets, and that while pain fades, real love does not. It also illustrates that while we may love truly and deeply, we may not know how to show it to the one who most needs to know it.
“Photographs and Memories” (Jim Croce)
Beautiful guitar on this one. It’s a song about a break-up, but it speaks to me about a different kind of separation. This one’s personal. Oh, we sure had a good time… I really think the best songs break your heart again and again; maybe that’s true of all good art. It’s true of this song, for me anyway.
“Self Pity Blues” (Harmony Grisman)
Harmony is one of my guitar teachers at camp, and I first heard this song last year when she performed it; ultimately we all chimed in on the chorus. She’s an accomplished blues guitarist. I was glad it was on her CD. I love this song, because it’s the kind of song you would write when you’re down in the dumps and you realize you don’t have to be, but you just want to wallow anyway. It’s a song about laughing at yourself even as you continue to have your pity party. I find it fascinating that the human mind is capable of this. I often wonder if it’s the soul laughing at the mind. I can’t help but smiling when I sing along.
“Gracias a la Vida” (Mercedes Sosa)
This song has always puzzled me—the lyrics and the music are a mismatch that is not unpleasant. It is a song of gratitude to the variety and experiences of life, but the music makes my throat ache. She didn’t write it, but I wonder what went on in the mind of the person who did. Here are the lyrics, with the translation immediately after in italics.
“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” (Gordon Lightfoot)
I grew up on the Great Lakes, Superior and Michigan specifically, and they remain in my blood. Living in the desert, I don’t actively miss them so much, but when I’m back on the shore of Lake Superior, I am shaken once again by the power, the endlessness, the depth. You must respect those lakes; they are actually inland seas, and they are nothing to be trifled with. The bottoms of those lakes are littered with hundreds of shipwrecks. I love Lake Superior best on gray, cloudy days, where the wind comes in off the lake; I could sit in the sand for hours and just take it all in.
My father sailed the Edmund Fitzgerald as a young man; many of the local boys worked on the ore boats then, including my dad and his elder brother. Maybe they still do. By 1975, when the ship went down, my father was settled with a wife, a little girl just shy of her 4th birthday, and a 6-month-old baby boy. But had that lake taken him, and it might well have, I wouldn’t be here today. I have been listening to this song for 32 years, and it still gives me goosebumps every time. It is a true folk song, by one of the masters.
“I Can See the New View” (Lisa Otey)
This is a song by local gal Lisa Otey, who hugged me once after signing my freshly bought CD after her gig. This song was inspired by the events of 9/11. It is a song about how the world changes, sometimes violently and tragically, for someone if not for you. It ends with a prayer for love and forgiveness. Beauty in the darkness. The choir joins in and my body responds physically to the energy. An amazing song.
“Another Devil Dies” (Badly Drawn Boy)
This is a song about difficult love. Which I (fortunately) figured out just before I put it on a mix CD I was making for Scott’s and my 17th anniversary in October. The first verse is lovely, but it goes south from there. Still, I really dig this song, and the news is not all bad. “And when we sing, I hear another devil dies.” Given the pure, unadulterated joy I feel when I’m singing, I’d believe that.
“Indian Lover” (Jude)
This is such a dark song, but it is musically stunning. I love this one, and I learned to play it, but have only had the courage to play it out once because it’s really quite offensive. Jealousy, threatening a lover who spurned you, and some nasty overgeneralizations about Indians thrown in—a real crowd-pleaser. I’m too embarrassed to play it anywhere but my own room; but there I play it loud, and usually twice in a row.
“That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be” (Carly Simon)
This is, in my opinion, Carly’s best song. At the risk of committing heresy in some quarters, I must say she’s got some real clunkers (“Attitude Dancing” anyone? “Night Owl”?), but this is exquisite. A bleaker image of marriage has never been recorded in song, I daresay, and you can just hear the heartache of a young woman who has decided she doesn’t want that, but is pressured by her young man, and society as a whole, to give in. I always wanted to hear the sequel. Was she sorry? How did her life turn out? When she divorced James Taylor, did she think, “I knew it!”? Carly’s voice knocks me out on this one; I heard her new stuff recently, and time has taken its toll, sadly.
“Precious Things” (Tori Amos)
This is off Tori’s Little Earthquakes album, which was her first and still my favorite. The album itself found me at an interesting time in my life when I was throwing off the “good girl” straitjacket I’d lived in since birth, having decided it wasn’t really serving me anymore. There are a lot of songs on the album that speak to the explosive personal growth I was going through at the time, but this one is especially powerful because it is about girl anger, an anger I certainly am acquainted with, of being raised in, and expected to abide by the mores of, a culture that, despite all our advances, thinks the first and last job of a female human is to court and cultivate male attention, at the cost of our own identities and dignity. Pretty before practical; inoffensive before intelligent. And above all, nice. But nice only goes so far…
With their nine-inch nails
And little fascist panties
Tucked inside the heart
Of every nice girl
If you don’t think they’re there, you are quite mistaken.
“Gypsy Davy” (Rosie Doonan & Ben Murray)
This is a traditional song, arranged by the two artists performing it, and I just dig it. It’s an old, sad tune of betrayal and lost love, and for that, it’s still relevant. Love their harmonies. I’ll be learning this one.
“Mad World” (Gary Jules)
This is a Tears for Fears song, but I really don’t think it found its voice until Gary Jules did it. The piano version of the song was used in the movie Donnie Darko, a movie Scott and I watched through to the end, and then turned to each other and said, “What the hell was that all about???” Talk about a dark side. I happen to prefer this guitar version he recorded live. “The dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had.” God, what a sad, sorry state of mind created that line; and yet, I think it resonates with all of us a little. This life business is tougher than any of us bargained for, methinks.
“Quiet” (Rachel Yamagata)
This is a quiet sad, and Yamagata’s voice, which I’ve heard be very powerful, is kind of shaky, thin, and painfully sincere on this one. It feels appropriate, somehow.
“Adagio for Strings” (composed by Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic)
This is one of my favorite classical pieces, and it touches me deeply. It was used at the end of the movie Platoon in a particularly brilliant musical accompaniment to the action. This one also gives me goosebumps every time I hear it. If I had to ever pick a piece of music that exemplified “melancholy,” this would be it.