Whether it is because the synapses transmit more randomly to each other in an ageing brain or perhaps just because I am exposed to fewer auditory distractions, I have recently found that songs are getting stuck in my head for much longer than they used to. I hate that term ‘earworm’ with its implications of involuntary infestation by an alien parasite. These are not necessarily songs I dislike. They are, at least in the early stages, welcome guests. In fact sometimes I think I hold them there to extract every last drop of emotional juice.
But how do they get there in the first place? Sometimes it’s obvious. ‘Here comes the sun’ or ‘There she goes, just a-walking down the street’ can be triggered simply by one’s internal commentary on what is going on around one. ‘But she breaks just like a little girl’ or ‘Tell me why – I don’t like Mondays’ or ‘Leader of the pack’ might be summoned up by silent reflection on someone’s behaviour. Sometimes a bit more detective work is required to track down the source, especially when, as in dreams, some terrible pun is involved. A couple of years ago I found myself humming ‘Goodnight Irene’ at breakfast time, not having wished anyone goodnight for some time or having thought about anyone called Irene. Eventually I worked out that it was because a nerine bulb I had planted in a pot on my front steps in the expectation that it would have pink blooms had in fact produced flowers whose scimitar-like petals were such a pale shade that they were almost white, but I had decided I still liked it (not many plants come up with such grace and elegance so late in the summer). My poor befuddled brain was singing ‘Good white Nerine’ to me!
In a kind of do-it-yourself psychotherapy, a new musical arrival in the consciousness provides a good pretext for ferreting about in one’s memory – and in the broader culture – for associations both likely and unlikely.
Earlier this year, for several weeks, I was haunted by the Welsh song Myfanwy, beloved of male voice choirs and anyone else who is not too self-consciously modernist or afraid of their own inner sentimentalist to be melted by the beauty of a 19th century love song. I thought at first it might be sticking around in my head for so long because I didn’t know all the words, so I googled it and discovered not only the lyrics, with several different – mostly execrable – English translations, but also a number of different renditions on Youtube. I was particularly moved by two of these.
The first was by Cerys Matthews who, when she sings in Welsh, ceases to be the feisty rock chick she was in Catatonia and becomes a good little Sunday school girl, anxious to please the grownups. It is perhaps the childlike unaffectedness of her voice that is the secret of her charm as a singer (though I wouldn’t want to downgrade the intelligence and musical taste that makes her such a good DJ on Radio 6).
The other, even bigger, surprise was the version by John Cale, a more extreme example of the same phenomenon. I am used to associating this Very Bad Boy of Rock with the heroin-drenched performances of Velvet Underground or the over-the-top anguish of his version of Heartbreak Hotel (which I sometimes recommend to people as a cure for depression: hearing one’s despair so caricatured, so much on public display, so magnified, can induce a degree of detachment that makes it easier to bear, if not laugh at). But he sang Myfanwy on a Welsh TV show in 1992 with such simplicity and honesty and understatement that it is hard not to be moved to tears by it. One sees the child he must once have been in how he sings it, and the pain he must have experienced since then is not flaunted but forms part of the backdrop of his sensibility, giving his singing and piano-playing the quality that, thanks to African Americans, we call ‘soul’ in English, though the Welsh word is ‘hwyl’ (a word that also refers to fun and to the quality of inspiration that comes to preachers when they are on form).
It is hardly original to suppose that singing the songs of childhood reconnects one to a world of innocence and since-dashed hope. But when that childhood was experienced through a different language this takes on an extra dimension of estrangement: for me, at least, and perhaps for these two singers too, it is a world from which the English-speaking adult self is permanently exiled and whose beauties can never be communicated to one’s English-speaking friends. It therefore becomes the focus of an extraordinarily intense nostalgia, or, as we say in Welsh, ‘hiraeth’.
So this song of lost love commemorates a double loss: of past loves and of communicable culture. It is also, of course, an exceptionally good (and reputedly autobiographical) love song. In the same spirit as the Righteous Brothers’ ‘You’ve lost that loving feeling’, the poet narrator is made aware that his fiancee has gone off him by her irritability and failure to light up when he appears. He doesn’t want her hand without her heart, so releases her from the engagement, but, in the tear-jerking last line, after wishing her all possible joy in the future, he asks to take her hand one last time – just to say goodbye. And the tune is powerful enough to move you even if you don’t have a clue what the words mean.
At the moment, the song that I am waking up to every morning is ‘Me and Bobby McGee’. What’s that about? It is quite possible that the original trigger might have been one of the aphorisms embedded in it. To coin one memorable aphorism in a song is an achievement. In this one, Kris Kristofferson managed to generate three phrases that have embedded themselves in the consciousness of several generations, if you allow for the first breaking down into two halves: ‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose’ and ‘Nothing ain’t worth nothing but it’s free’. Then later, we get ‘I’d trade all my tomorrows for a single yesterday’. My life is full of experiences that prompt such reflections and it would be no suprise to find that this was how it got there.
But the song has other resonances too, not just, I suspect, for me. Its protagonist is part of that long and ambivalent American tradition of itinerants: cowboys, hoboes, beatniks, hippies, whose representations have done so much to romanticise a particular model of commitment-phobic masculinity. It does so in a way, unthinkable in most other parts of the world, that successfully airbrushes class and race out of the story. His narrative is in the first person but he is described, as it were, from outside, by a middle class eye, with his faded jeans and dirty red bandanna (a traditional blues singer, surely, would see no need for those adjectives when describing his taken-for-granted clothing). Kristofferson (former Rhodes scholar, though he was) is careful to respect the vernacular (‘With them windscreen wipers slapping time’ would be ruined if the grammatically correct ‘those’ were to be substituted for ‘them’). When I looked up the lyrics (once again, in the hope that getting them right would exorcise the song from the top layer of my brain) and saw them in cold print for the first time, I found myself feeling quite schoolteacherish about the writing. How sloppy just to insert the word ‘Lord’ whenever a line needs an extra syllable to make it scan. How awkward to write ‘we finally sang up every song that driver knew’ when ‘we wound up singing every song that driver knew’ would work so much better.
But how supremely irrelevant such quibbles are when the song comes loaded with such a freight of meaning. Most people of my generation, I think, know the song from the versions sung by Janis Joplin and Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan, both powerful, soulful performers whose tragic lives came to an end much too early, in 1971 and 1973 respectively. I heard Pigpen sing it, more than once, on the Grateful Dead’s 1972 European tour, when I attended every concert I could get tickets for, three of them with a dear friend who also died tragically young. Sometimes it was Phil Lesh who took over the vocals with his reedy voice while Pigpen played harmonica but Pigpen’s voice was raunchier and bluesier and he had an extraordinary ability to rouse an audience and this was a song that brought us to our feet. But it is impossible to remember it without also hearing the heartbreaking sweetness of Jerry Garcia’s guitar in those soaring and unpredictable solos that took you somewhere different every time. I did not know then that Pigpen and Joplin had had an affair and remained friends till her death, so he must have had her in his thoughts when he sang it, or that he was already very ill from the liver disease that caused his death the following year, or that Joplin had also been in a relationship with Kristofferson, who encouraged her to make the recording we know so well which was released after she died (I hope, for his sake, not just for the royalties it would generate). So many currents of tragedy flowed through this song in that brief interval between those two deaths and it is impossible to hear it without this retrospective tinge.
For me, the song has yet another layer of association. I spent the summer of 1965 travelling around Greece with a Harvard-educated, guitar-toting American backpacker on his way back from India who embodied many of the qualities of its narrator. When I googled Kristofferson’s lyrics I also found his biography and discovered a series of remarkable parallels I hadn’t been aware of between him and my erstwhile companion. These two guys were both born in Texas, in the same year, both sons of army officers, both did military service before the Vietnam war and both (or at least the one I knew) prided themselves on being dropouts and saw this as a sort of badge of artistic integrity.
I am reminded of the ambivalent lure that the United States had for my generation. We hated what the CIA was doing in Latin America and the US army in Vietnam, but, boy, did we love rock and roll.
The romance of the road was somehow inextricably tied up with the glamour of America and seemed to offer not just an escape from responsibility but also from the more general binds of conventional gender and class relationships. It created a fantasy world in which it was possible to form a relationship on as-if-equal terms with anyone one encountered and, if it didn’t work out, just move on to the next town. Bobby McGee meditates on this, recognising that there is a cost, but, despite the tone of regret, the implication is that the subject has no other option than to live this way: if you want to be an artist, you have to be like Kerouac (or, as I wrote on my bedroom wall when I was about 15 ‘there’s no security like no security’).
Time to move on!