When I was a boy I got this rather strange idea that if a song had words you had to be able to understand them. There just didn’t seem to be any point to singing lyrics if no one had a clue what they were about. In this vein I started off with Elvis and I think the first cassette I ever bought was Separate Ways. I quickly gravitated to Motown Soul so I grew up with Marvin Gaye, the Temptations and the Four Tops, Stevie Wonder and Junior Walker. Later I discovered other types of music and took to Simon and Garfunkel, Carly Simon, Elkie Brooks and James Taylor. I learned the lyrics to their songs and sang along to Joe Jackson, Steve Forbert, Bob Dylan’s extended story songs and the Stylistics close harmonies and I related to what they were singing about through the words they used. To me, a song was about the words.
Music didn’t have to have words, though; I listened to Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells and Carlos Santana’s elliptic guitar solos, and I decided I liked jazz music too, Dave Brubeck, Django Reinhardt, Ben Webster, Sidney Bechet and Coleman Hawkins. In my thirties I discovered I liked classical music too, Beethoven’s symphonies, Mozart flute concertos and Tchaikovsky, Ravel and Mussorgsky. But the idea that songs were about lyrics never went very far away so heavy rock bands like Motorhead, Led Zeppelin and AC/DC never said very much to me precisely because their lyrics were being screamed at me in a way that seemed designed to ensure I wouldn’t know if he had got them wrong. And what would be the point of that?
Along the way I learned to play two instruments, the flute and alto sax, and I played in a few groups. I played in an orchestra and a little jazz combo and I played pop-type stuff in a few little pick up groups. For three years I played in a military band playing marches by John Phillip Sousa and all the time my record collection was growing. I added Willie Nelson, UB40 and Dire Straits and the light operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan and I thought I had a handle on what music was. I knew there was stuff out there I had never heard and there was definitely stuff I had heard but wished I hadn’t but I thought that I had broadly experienced what music was about.
Then, one day, I was messing about on You-Tube, listening to bands I had never heard before, trying stuff out. I came across a track by a band I had heard of but knew nothing about. Okay, what do they play, I asked myself, and clicked on play. There was no video, no lyrics, just a static logo that looked like the front of a tour t-shirt. A guy counted them in and the band started playing, real fast. It was solid, electric rock; three guitars and a hard driving drummer and the singer was screaming into his mike like there was no tomorrow. I had no idea what the words were; there was just one line of the chorus that I could make out but the sound was like nothing I had ever heard before. It wasn’t music, it was nothing like any music I had ever heard. It was an army of zombies advancing relentlessly towards me with electric hedge trimmers and circular saws, it was the raw emotions of an angry man ripped bare of any sentiment and flayed before me. It was the entire contents of his soul torn from his larynx and smashed, bleeding, onto the stage and my head was being pushed forward into this seething, oozing mass, forcing me not just to watch him die a thousand deaths a second but to absorb his pain into the genetic essence of my being. It was a blazing wall of torment getting bigger and bigger and bigger and just when it seemed that no man could possibly be that angry the chord changed, a new hook grabbed me and pulled me even closer until by the end of the song I was so close I could see right down his snarling throat and feel bloody flecks of his passion landing on my skin.
When it ended I was drained. I. Was. Drained. It was as though I had been the one singing the song and the words, whatever they were about, were about my pain, about my hurt, about every wrong that had ever been done to me and the things I was going to do to the ones who had hurt me. It was about what they deserved and how they were going to suffer. The words themselves didn’t matter. Thirty years of thinking it was about the words and I was wrong after all. It isn’t about the words. It isn’t about the song, its not about the catchy tune or the snappy chord change, it isn’t about drum breaks or guitar solos. Music is about passion. The man singing that song felt those words in every fibre of his being. Whatever they were about he meant every single one of them. He hadn’t written that song, it had been dragged from him like an existential hand reaching down his throat and tearing his guts inside out and he yelled them at me with a violent fury that said he wanted everyone not just to know about his pain but to care. You weren’t allowed to just listen to the song you had to live it, to participate in the moment and believe it, and to care passionately about what happened as though your life depended on it.
What do you suppose the song was about? Let’s try a few timeless themes: My girlfriend died? Nope, it’s not about that. I died and my girl is left behind? No. Some guy killed her and I’m going to rip his head off? No. I met the perfect girl but the train left before I got to tell her? No, it isn’t about that either. The song, believe it or not, is about a man going to a cemetery to lay a wreath. I could probably count on the fingers of one finger the number of
songs that have been written about a man going to a cemetery to lay a wreath, so I don’t blame you for not guessing it. And, whilst I’m not a big fan of assumptions, you would be forgiven for assuming that it wasn’t just any man going to just any cemetery.
The year was 1985, which is some time ago so let’s set the scene. Former movie star Ronald Reagan was in the first year of his second term as President of the United States. Helmut Kohl was Chancellor of West Germany; the two Germany’s were still separate countries and would not reunite until 1990. Nelson Mandela was in the twenty third year of a life sentence in prison in South Africa for having the temerity to believe that the colour of a man’s skin is irrelevant. British scientists working in the Antarctic discovered the hole in the ozone layer, and the Live Aid pop concert was held simultaneously in London and Philadelphia and raised £50 million to fund relief for the famine in Africa. Mikhail Gorbachev was elected General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, making him the de facto ruler of the USSR. He was largely unknown in the West at the time and the period after his election in March was pregnant with tension as nations held their collective breath and waited to see which way the Cold War wind was blowing. Roger Moore starred in his sixth and last James Bond film, A View to a Kill, but Back to the Future starring Michael J. Fox was the year’s box office success story, and the Dire Straits album, Brothers In Arms, became the first million selling compact disc. A privately owned company based in Bellevue, Washington, released the first version of a new computer software program that they described as, “a graphical extension for MS-DOS”. They called it Windows.
It was also forty years since the end of World War II, and some people felt a need to remember that. I once read the diary of a man who visited Hiroshima in the immediate aftermath of the atomic bomb that ended the war, and though he was not a highly literate man his first hand account, written on his ship within days of the event, described in quite painfully graphic detail the effects of that devastating moment in the long history of man’s perplexing determination to annihilate his own species. Reading his diary made me think about how we had come to that point and how the event might have affected many different people. Not just the immediate deaths but those who suffered radiation sickness, those affected by the horror or those who mourned for the thousands who died. And what about those who planned and executed the mission, the crew of the Enola Gay would not be human if they were not affected by the thought that one press of a button had wiped out eighty thousand people in a heartbeat.
In war, the average front line soldier is just a man trying to do his duty to whatever country he calls home. He does not direct the course of the war or develop new technology or plan battles, he didn’t devise and might not even subscribe to the ideology he is fighting to defend, he just does whatever he can to ensure that he can emerge alive from the horror and go home to his wife and child and forget. And whether he gets to go home or not, whichever side he is on, he is as much a victim of the war as anyone else. There are no winners in war. Everyone loses.
Which is not to excuse war crimes but to suggest that ordinary ideas about morality and ethics might be easy for us to think about fifty or a hundred years after the event and to point fingers and apportion blame but for the men on the ground, in the words of Theodore Van Kirk, last surviving member of the crew of the Enola Gay, “It’s really hard to talk about morality and war in the same sentence.” Where, he asked, was the morality in the carpet bombing of Dresden, and we might equally ask about the morality of other wars, the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam, or the destruction of North Korea’s hydroelectric dams in 1952. The history of mankind has, basically, been the story of man’s inhumanity to man and war in all its forms is the ultimate expression of our abiding hatred of each other and all those who get caught up in war are victims of that hate.
It would be naive, however, to expect that everyone will feel the same way. The very existence of Godwin’s Law so long after the events should tell us that emotions are still stirred by those historic events and that some people feel more victimised than others. There are probably people in Britain who see something noble in the defence of Rorke’s Drift, especially if they forget why those soldiers were there in the first place, but the survivors of Sobibor or Bergen Belsen probably found it very difficult to see anything noble in war. There is nothing enobling about the systematic annihilation of an entire people and it is understandably very hard for some people to view the soldiers ordered to commit those atrocities as victims. Many people will see any attempt to victimise the perpetrators as a deliberate, premeditated, diabolical, violent slap in the face of every Jew who ever lived.
So when Chancellor Helmut Kohl invited Ronald Reagan to join him at a German military cemetery to mourn the dead of World War II, passions were bound to be aroused. When Reagan had laid his wreath and spent a few moments in quiet contemplation he walked out of the cemetery hand in hand with his wife Nancy and they were heckled at the gates by a small group of protestors, angry at his symbolic act of friendship and regret. When he was
asked about their protest he said simply, “It’s a free country,” and I think it worth spending a moment considering just why it was a free country, how it got to be a free country, and what it took for those people to be able to stand there and protest in a free country.
The song was called, “My Brain is Hanging Upside Down“, a title that suggests a complete upheaval of everything the writer knows and expects and understands. His total belief system is being challenged by events he cannot comprehend and his response is to write a song about it, to vent his spleen in his chosen artistic medium, music. Art has to have passion, to be about emotions, and the stronger the feelings the better. There are no paintings dedicated to the idea that I kind of like somebody, but love, anger, fear, hate, death, strong emotions are almost required for great art. I would hate to live in a world where art was produced simply because it was felt we needed culture; paintings mass produced because they are supposed to be good for us, a society where that passed for art would be a soulless place that no one would want to inhabit, it would suck the hope out of anyone fool enough to go there, so that the song, whether we understand the words or not, so strongly opposed Reagan’s act is, ironically, a sign of a mature society where adults can disagree with each other without going to war about it.
Politics isn’t about passion but it arouses passions, it is about emotive topics of rights and duties and responsibilities and loyalties and people understandably get animated about politics in a way that they generally do not in any other part of their lives. Maybe, then, we can think of the heckler at a political rally as a performance artist, someone who expresses his passionate emotions in his chosen medium and if that’s true then maybe a politician who doesn’t get heckled has failed as a politician. Which would mean that those hecklers outside the cemetery gates are performance artists too, just like the Ramones with their song, who were heckling Reagan from a distance, without actually disturbing his wreath laying ceremony they were saying how wrong he was to be doing it. Which might mean that my childish, naive assumption about songs was maybe not that wrong. Maybe songs really are about the words after all.
1. The band are called the Ramones. The song is, My brain is hanging upside down (Bonzo goes to Bitburg). It was written by Jeffrey Ross Hyman, also known as Joey Ramone. He was Jewish.
2. In 1951, Ronald Reagan appeared in a film called Bedtime for Bonzo, with Bonzo being a chimpanzee who is allegedly taught human morals by being reared by human “parents”. In his political career he was sometimes referred to as Bonzo and more than one song references him with this name, probably not affectionately.