By The Landlord
“Why do you think I could sing with the emotions I do? Because of pain in my heart.” – Tina Turner
“If my art has nothing to do with people's pain and sorrow, what is 'art' for?” – Ai Weiwei
“There's no comfort in the truth, pain is all you'll find.” George Michael
“Give me life, give me pain, give me myself again.” – Tori Amos
Suffering, whether that's in the mind or body, is the very fountain from which most art springs. After all, the reason to write a song is more often than not to address and try to understand hurt, whether that's within, after or yearning for a relationship, or any of life's other travails from money to family, illness to loneliness to bad news. However if we were to try and focus generally on the topic on pain and hurt, it would cover most of the songs ever written. So this week we're looking at songs that look at the upside of pain, how it can be used or depicted positively, as a motivator, a lesson, a reminder, something that improves you, something to kick against, or even as a source of pleasure. No pain no gain? Sometimes. Pain and hurt come in many forms, and across this spectrum there are also plenty of songs.
As always we have a crowded bar today, all straining to get served, but also eager to tell us about what pain means to them. And not for the first time, our guests span the ages. Ancient Greek tragedian Aeschylus gets his flagon of wine in first, with the telling, timeless remark that, “There is no pain so great as the memory of joy in present grief.” And now joining him for seconds is that arch wit, writer and vicar, Laurence Sterne: “Pain and pleasure, like light and darkness, succeed each other.” A German man in spectacles nods sagely, and orders up a third round. “There is no birth of consciousness without pain,” says Carl Jung. And making up this highbrow quartet, a handsome man with a cane, a limp and a cloak turns heads as he enters, knocks on the bar top for a stiff one, and punctuates his entrance with the following phrase: “The great art of life is sensation, to feel that we exist, even in pain.” Who is it? Lord Byron, of course.
How do you match such a group of learned, revered figures? Well, William Shatner reckons he’s got what he takes. And here he is, in an episode of Star Trek as Captain Kirk, remonstrating with an outsider who dupes the rest of his crew into a quasi-religious path of taking away their troubles, mental and physical. Kirk, though is having none of it. Good on him:
If Kirk needs his pain, then certainly William Shatner also had a talent for administering it when he did his covers of popular songs such as Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds, or Pulp’s Common People, but hey, that’s another story. But he has a point. We need our pain to make us who we are, and that’s what often carries a song.
Kanye West, swaggering briefly into the bar with a sycophantic entourage, can’t wait to have his say on the matter. What a surprise. “Creative output, you know, is just pain. I'm going to be cliche for a minute and say that great art comes from pain.” Thanks Kanye. You’re right of course, cliche or otherwise. And I’d take you seriously, but then you said this: “I am God's vessel. But my greatest pain in life is that I will never be able to see myself perform live.” There’s words for pain like quite that. Or for someone who hangs out in Trump Tower. Pain is the arse is one. Complete arsehole is another.
Suffering for your art is nothing new. Mental health problems may have caused Van Gogh to slice of his ear, or because of a row with Paul Gauguin, but JMW Turner strapping himself to the mast of a ship in stormy seas to get an essence of weather and sky was definitely a deliberate act. Let’s get some fresh air with him as portrayed by Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s 2014 biopic:
Two of our most vocal regulars at the bar now have their say. Here’s Henry Rollins. “I think that humans have a huge capacity to carry pain and sadness. There are things that haunt us our entire lives; we are unable to let them go. The good times seem almost effervescent and dreamlike in comparison with the times that didn't go so well.”
And now Jill Scott is positively bursting to have her say: “I think, as an artist, you have to have experienced some deep turmoil, some kind of pain, because that's what connects you with the world. That's what makes it juicy! … Heartbreak was the impetus to me writing poems and music in the first place. Over the years, I had my heart broken so badly that if I didn't find a way to get all the pain out, I was going to lose my mind. I was crazy! Like, wanting to slash tires and smash car windows. Crazy! I was so hurt that I had to write.” Time for a quick song then, from her contemporary, Mary J Blige, who wants no more drama but obviously it’s the pain that created this great song:
Pain, for all the satisfaction of creative output that it inspires, can however, also have its darker sides. Link Wray, although a white guy, had a point when he remarked that “Soul music is pain – you can hear the slaves, the beatin' and the hurtin’.” Meanwhile, that most tortured of souls, Kurt Cobain, revealed that he endured a lot of physical pain for his art: “My body is damaged from music in two ways. I have a red irritation in my stomach. It's psychosomatic, caused by all the anger and the screaming. I have scoliosis, where the curvature of your spine is bent, and the weight of my guitar has made it worse. I'm always in pain, and that adds to the anger in our music.”
But physical pain is something that some people crave. “High heels are pleasure with pain,” says the fashion designer Christian Louboutin. Maybe Christian, but you’re a bloke and don’t wear them. And women know a thing or two about pain. Is there anything more painful than childbirth?
Meanwhile your songs might also verge onto the, shall we say, Marquis de Sade, territory. “It is always by way of pain one arrives at pleasure,” he quips, mischievously. So let’s have a couple of songs that combine a bit of fashion and pleasure of the painful kind. First up, The Cramps, and where there is pain, there is also relish:
And with it, this jaunty little number by that obscure band fronted by Freddie Mercury:
Feel the burn? Well indeed. Physical pain can also have benefits, according those of the athletic persuasion, and most of us do know the pleasure when muscles are stretched a little. But some take it much further. Arnold Schwarzenegger is not exactly shy when it comes to explaining why: “The last three or four reps is what makes the muscle grow. This area of pain divides the champion from someone else who is not a champion. That's what most people lack, having the guts to go on and just say they'll go through the pain no matter what happens.” Whatever you like Arnie. And he even takes it further in that early film in which he, er, stood out, Pumping Iron (1977):
And then there are people like David Blaine (well, very few) who, for days, like to entrap themselves in ice, have electricity passed through them, be buried alive, or hang in a perspex box by Tower Bridge while passersby hurl at him abuse and cabbage and other foodstuffs he can’t eat. It is the mind overpowering pain, he says. Although it can go wrong, even when have a protective tooth and mouth guard when literally attempting to catch a bullet in your gob:
But let’s get away from this now, and sample a few songs that channel pain of different songs. Dinosaur Jr’s Feel The Pain is seems to suggest that one’s very existence is all about feeling the pain of others, not oneself:
Melissa Etheridge, meanwhile, regards pain as precious. “Everybody's got a hunger / No matter where they are / Everybody clings to their own fear / Everybody hides some scar /Precious pain / Empty and cold but it keeps me alive / I gave it my soul so that I could survive /Keeping me safe in these chains / Precious Pain.”
For Ben Harper, pain from the death of a loved one can turn into something positive, as he explains in this live version, how his grandmother encouraged him to write an upbeat song about her dying, and that there is also pleasure for her in passing:
And finally, another one that can be considered for nomination, is this classic by Susan Cadogan, one which has also been featured on our Song of the Day section:
And so then, finding the pleasure in pain songs, and putting the happiness into hurt, this week’s guest guru is comes with healing hands of our marvellous musical paramedic, ParaMhor. Place your songs in comments below for Monday evening 11pm deadline (UK time) for playlists published on Wednesday.
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Fancy a turn behind the pumps at The Song Bar? Care to choose a playlist from songs nominated and write something about it? Then feel free to contact The Song Bar here, or try the usual email address.