"If a composer could say what he had to say in words he would not bother trying to say it in music.” – Giuseppi Verdi
Up to a point, Giuseppi. Yes, music’s beauty lies partly in its ability to express feelings that can’t be captured by words. But the peculiar charm of the popular song comes from blending the two: music and lyrics adding unexpected depths to each other, feeding both the head and the heart.
James Joyce, my guitar-toting avatar this week, appreciated this. In the ‘Sirens’ episode of Ulysses, which is dripping in musical language and imagery, our anti-hero, Leopold Bloom, is having lunch (liver and bacon, the details matter) in the bar of the Ormond Hotel, certain that his wife, Molly, is about to go to bed with his nemesis, Blazes Boylan. By this stage in the book, Leopold is already a mess of thoughts and feelings. But when Bob Cowley, Ben Dollard and Simon Dedalus (one of whose daughters, Katey, was here this week nominating Eno – crazy world!) gather around the piano and start singing Irish ballads and light arias, things start to get even more wibbly-wobbly.
It’s not just the music that chokes Leopold up. It’s the mingling of this and the tender lyrics that provokes a string of confused mental and emotional reactions. What’s his 15- year-old daughter up to down in Mullingar? Why is Dedalus singing the wrong words to that aria? Is it true that tenors get women by the score? Did fate bring him and Molly together all those years ago playing musical chairs at Mat Dillon’s bar?
We’re joined today by another Ulysses character to announce this week’s A-listed nominations. Stately plump Buck Mulligan comes from the stairhead, solemnly mounts the beer-crate platform at the back of the Song Bar, holds a sealed envelope aloft and gives a long, slow whistle to call the revellers to attention.
Mulligan declares that the Franz Kakfa Prize for Best Short Story goes to Courtney Barnett for Elevator Operator, crafting a delightful narrative from a string of apparently inconsequential details. An expensively attired lady meets a dishevelled young man, their fingers touching on the rooftop button of an apartment block elevator. She’s worried he’s come to throw himself off the roof. Unlike most of what follows, this one has a happy ending, and Courtney gets to rock out with her band.
Who’s won the Charles Dickens Medal for Pathos in Narrative? Mulligan gives John Wesley Ryles a pat on the back and asks for a few bars of his classic single, Kay. “Caution lights blink out their warning, some old Big Ben clock chimes 3 a.m. / Starvin’ hound dogs search the trash cans, my gas tank could stand a dollar’s worth of gas / All those chunk holes here on Main Street jar my rib cage, I could cuss”. Terrific.
Next up, the Kate Chopin Award for Sparse, Economic Narrative goes to Sufjan Stevens for Romulus. Its strummed guitar, picked banjo and haunting vocals capture in four short verses the feelings of abandonment and shame that the narrator feels for his estranged mother. It’s all in the small details. When his grandpa dies, his mother smokes in her room and colours her hair.
Mulligan is now worried he’s got a right miserable guru on his hands. It’s about to get grimmer. The J. M. Coetzee Shield for Chilling Narrative is awarded posthumously to Bill Morrissey for These Cold Fingers. His life is slipping through his fingers. At least he’s got his dog, who he’s known longer than most of his friends. Nooooo, not the dog ...
A change of pace. A proud Plan B accepts the Harper Lee Silver Gavel for Courtroom Drama for She Said. When Mr B opens the proceedings with a bland pop lyric (“She said I love you boy, I love you so”), you don’t realise these words will become a key element in his legal defence. This emerges as he starts rapping from the witness box (don’t try this for real in court, kids). OK, he’s no Harper Lee, but it’s a great toe-tapping tune.
Staying in the groove, the Enid Blyton Commendation for Hip Hop Song that is Best Antidote to Vulgarity, Misogyny and Braggadociosity goes to Lupe Fiasco for Kick Push, the engaging five-minute story of a young skateboarder’s childhood, first love and later life. Charming, says Buck Mulligan. He then growls in a hoarsened rasping voice, as he attempts to imitate Mr Fiasco’s rapping.
You’ll like this one too, Mulligan: the Elmore Leonard Prize for Comedy Crime Caper. Welcome to the stage, Barenaked Ladies, who sing of a Bank Job that goes badly wrong on so many levels. How do you plan for a bank full of nuns?
Time for James Joyce’s personal award for Siren of the Week, which this week goes to the air stewardess on the billboard advert in 10cc’s I’m Mandy Fly Me. Mandy comes to life and beckons the narrator through the poster onto an ill-fated plane trip. Pop music at its silly best.
The Jennifer Egan Trophy for Use of Multiple Narrators goes to the Grateful Dead. The narrative of Jack Straw alternates between Shannon, who’s just busted out of jail and jumped the watchman for four bucks change; Jack, who doesn’t like his fellow fugitive cutting down a man in cold blood like that; and a third-party narrator. This one doesn’t end happily, either. But what a joyously beautiful song.
The J. K. Rowling Wand for Foreshadowing Techniques in Narrative? That’s for June Tabor & The Oyster Band, with the splendid Susie Clelland. A Scottish lady has fallen in love with an Englishman. Her father is not impressed. Susie’s not for turning. “I will not that man foresake, though you should burn me at the stake.” You really don’t want to be saying that, Susie ...
Great stuff, agrees Mulligan. But what am I doing here? How has a fictional medical student from early 20th-century Dublin washed up in a 21st-century Song Bar? It’s funny you should ask, Mulligan. We’re about to hand John Prine the Thomas Pynchon Palme d’Or for Anachronism. Jesus the Missing Years fills in the details of Jesus’s teenage years and early twenties. He hangs out in Rome with music publishers and Bible belters. He sees Rebel Without A Cause. He discovers the Beatles. He even opens up for George Jones.
The crowd is getting restless. They want a good old-fashioned story with a beginning, a middle and an end. Quickly, the classic line-up of Genesis is called up to the stage to accept the J. R. R. Tolkien Book Token for Mythic Narrative for Fountain of Salmacis. The tale is quite conventional (boy meets water nymph, boy swims away from nymph, the gods merge them into a single, androgynous form). But the boys propel it into orbit with some mesmerising musical textures, twisting rhythms, and layered vocals. It’s called prog, Mulligan. I’ll explain later.
Finally, the Guru’s award for most heart-rending narrative of the week. And heaven to Betsy there’s been some stiff competition, but the winner is Mary Gauthier, who had me crying into my bowl of salted pistachios. In March 11, 1962, she uses the stunningly simple device of a telephone call to tell the story of contacting her birth mother. It’s a bewitching performance that draws you right in and, like all the best narratives, makes you want to know what happens next.
The A-list (the beginning)
Courtney Barnett – Elevator Operator
John Wesley Ryles – Kay
Sufjan Stevens – Romulus
Bill Morrissey – These Cold Fingers
Plan B – She Said
Lupe Fiasco – Kick Push
Barenaked Ladies – Bank Job
10cc – I’m Mandy Fly Me
Grateful Dead – Jack Straw
June Tabor and the Oyster Band – Susie Clelland
John Prine – Jesus the Missing Years
Genesis – The Fountain of Salmacis
Mary Gauthier – March 11, 1962
The slightly cheerier B-list (the middle)
And possible nepotism alert. I have a strong hunch that I know the secret alter ego of Kateydedalus. But, if no one else minds, I think her Eno nomination earns its place here.
Helen Reddy – Angie Baby (Young girl makes boy vanish with volume control) Jimmy Dean – Big Bad John (Miner saves lives of co-workers)
Kate Bush – Babooshka (Woman tests fidelity of husband)
Brian Eno – Back in Judy’s Jungle (Ill-selected soldiers assemble for mission)
Ultimate Painting – Central Park Blues (Young man meanders around NYC)
The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing – Fox (Man befriends fox)
Big Audio Dynamite – The Battle of All Saints Road (Rastas meet rocker downtown)
New Model Army – The Hunt (Angry mob takes justice into own hands)
Tom Waits – Gun Street Girl (Man buys 20-gauge shotgun and goes on the run)
Earl Zinger – Saturday Morning Rush (Man goes to buy record)
Josh Ritter – Temptation of Adam (Romance blossoms in nuclear missile silo)
Darrell Scott – You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive (Family dynasty wants out of E. Kentucky) Sun Kil Moon & The Album Leaf – Gustavo (Half-built house doesn’t get finished)
Guru’s wild card (the end)
During the week, I set myself the challenge of finding a reggae track that fitted the topic. I found this surprisingly hard. Then I remembered the UK’s finest dub poet.
Linton Kwesi Johnson – Five Nights of Bleeding
These playlists were inspired by readers' song nominations from last week's topic: What happened next? Songs with a gripping or intriguing narrative. The next topic will launch on Thursday at 1pm UK time.
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