Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Putting Words to Music

In one of his shimmering short stories, John Updike described being fascinated when he was a boy by the light emanating from the radio in his father's truck, and the music lilting from it while he was riding around in 1940s rural Pennsylvania. He claimed that it inspired in him a lifelong fascination with popular music, defined as the musical noise always being piped in from somewhere at every strategic moment of our lives.

For reasons of my own, this is precisely why I have always hated popular music: it is unsolicited and inescapable. Like everyone else, alas, there are occasions in my life that are inextricably linked to whatever pop song happened to be playing at the time. Of course, the songs were never the ones I would've wanted to hear at the time - songs of beauty and meaning quite beyond the emotion with which such moments were freighted. I learned quickly enough in my youth that I was born out of my time when I learned that the song that my mother and father called "our song" was Nat King Cole's "Stay As Sweet As You Are"(1) while I was forced to settle for one or another fatuous rock anthem. (Although, I must admit, there was a particular party from the 8th grade that will always be evoked by the mellifluous Love Unlimited song, "Walking in the Rain with the One I Love.")

Most of the time, the words of a popular song are its least memorable part. Normally, they are nothing but words strung together that make merely platitudinous sense. When Rolling Stone recently published its list of the "100 Greatest Songwriters" (Bob Dylan was number 1), what they failed to make clear was that the "songwriters" to which they were referring were only those that their readers would have known - writers of pop songs for the past fifty-odd years. Those readers grew up (well, some of them anyway) listening to songs whose lyrics were either too silly or forgettable - or both - for them to make their writers' names worth remembering. There were occasionally pop or rock songs from the last half of the 20th century that had something to say, but practically no one expected or required them to do so. Songs normally overheard on the radio, the musical equivalent of wallpaper, were rarely credited as anything more than bubblegum for the brain.   

When I was married in 1995 in the Philippines, a reception was held in a local Chinese restaurant. Since I had a video camera, but was otherwise occupied, the occasion was videotaped by one of my bride's neighbors, named Pia. The music that was playing in the background wasn't of my choosing. I'm not sure if the person who chose it knew that it was supposed to accompany a wedding reception. They were suitably generic and innocuous. Sometimes, an English-language song would become popular in the Philippines without anyone making any sense out of the song's lyrics. I often heard Philippine radio stations playing rap songs in the '90s that contained some of the most scabrous and obscene language without the slightest attempt at censorship.

There was one particular song that stands out in my memory of the wedding reception, Matt Monro singing "Walk On." I remember it because it wasn't just another stupid pop ballad, but a torch song, an older "standard" that might've been sung by the likes of Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett. I'd heard the song before, oddly enough on a dinner date more than a year before with my future (now my ex-) wife, but I never listened closely to the words until this past week when I heard it being played on a radio show that the woman I now live with listens to almost every day. Here are the words to the song - and bear in mind that it was offered up as muzak at a wedding reception:

Walk away, please go
Before you throw your life away
A life that I could share for just a day
We should have met some years ago
For your sake I say
Walk away, just go.

Walk away, and live
A life that's full
With no regret,
Don't look back at me.
Just try to forget.
Why build a dream that cannot come true?
So be strong, reach the stars now.
Walk away, walk on.

If I heard your voice,
I'd beg you to stay.
So don't say a word.
Just run, run away.

Goodbye my love.
My tears will fall.
Now that you've gone,
I can't help but cry.
But I must go on.
I'm sad that I, after searching so long,

Knew I loved you, but I told you
Walk away, walk on, walk on.

Not very distinguished as song lyrics go, but to the point.

As chance would have it, my marriage didn't work out as planned. The name of this blog is something of a giveaway on the subject of my marital status. (I'm not, in fact, a widower. The woman in question didn't die, at least not in any physical sense.) Just think, I said to myself when I understood those words for the first time, of all the time and emotion and ultimate disappointment I could've spared myself if she or I had just hearkened to the words Matt Monro was singing - to the two of us - on that day twenty years ago. No matter how many times my sister, who believes that everything happens for a reason, would've told me that it had to be so, that I had to go through with marrying that woman just so that everything that has happened in my life subsequently - including my meeting the woman who now lives with me, a meeting that took place on December 4, 2007 precisely five years after my divorce was finalized by  judge back in Colorado - could've happened, I can't resist wondering where I would be now if I hadn't, in the words from Barrie's "The Admirable Crichton," so "sentimentalized" my pleasant time with her that I made the mistake of thinking that I could make it last for the rest of my life. The rest of one's life is a very long time, after all.

The words of another old torch song, "One for My Baby," come to mind, sung by a man telling a familiar story to a bartender (named Joe):

"Well, that's how it goes
And Joe, I know you're getting
Anxious to close.
And thanks for the beer.
I hope you didn't mind
My bending your ear.

But this torch that I found,
It's got to be drowned,
Or it soon might explode.

Make it one for my baby,
And one more for the road."

1. While I won't call it poetry, such lyrics as "Like a song of love that clings to me,/How the thought of you does things to me" from another Nat Cole song, "Unforgettable" is almost worthy of Keats.

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