By The Landlord
“This must be Thursday,” said Arthur to himself, sinking low over his beer. “I never could get the hang of Thursdays.” – Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
“We hang the petty thieves and appoint the great ones to public office.” – Aesop
“What do you hang on the walls of your mind?” – Eve Arnold
Stretched across many idiomatic examples in our language, few words offer a greater contrast – from a grim history of gravity-borne grisly executions, to the most relaxed form of socialising and lingering, to low-growing fruit, to the distinctive click when ending an old-style telephone conversation, to the intangibility of something in the air, and more – than the words hang or hanging. Literally and metaphorically then, this week the time is ripe to pick this themed musical fruit, from its lowest to highest dangling points, and especially from those buried deep in the thickets of your music collections. Where do we begin? Well, a host of unusual visitors have come to the Song Bar to proffer their thoughts on this subject, in the aim to build, in playlist form, what we hope will be the most positive, non-fatal, and fun forms of execution.
In history, of course, hanging is all about that horrible form of death, during which, ironically, the victims can end up doing a form of dance. Now the Bar here is far too tasteful a place to show pictures of such a thing, but there are plenty here who are happy to talk about it, steeped in wisdom and experience, and no doubt there are many folk and other genres that tell of such events. “He who wishes to be rich in a day will be hanged in a year,” says Leonardo da Vinci, already enjoying a flagon of wine. And William Shakespeare, not unfold of an ale or two, joins him in a seductive chat, and remarks, with a cruel humour, “Many a good hanging prevents a bad marriage.”
“Sirs!” says a large, portly man of quite considerably presence. “I might add that, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” It is none other than that dictionary dictator Samuel Johnson. “Aha,” says Benjamin Franklin. “And, sirs, if we do not hang together, we shall surely hang separately.”
Not wishing to be silenced, Oliver Cromwell remarks upon this and the mob who witness it. “Do not trust the cheering, for those persons would shout as much if you or I were going to be hanged”. “Yes comrade," says Joseph Stalin, who wasn’t short of a little paranoid to boot. “And when we hang the capitalists they will sell us the rope we use.”
"Hang 'em first, try 'em later,” said Phantly Roy Bean, Jr, the Texan 19th-century saloon keeper, justice of the peace and so-called “hanging judge”. He must have been a fun guy to hang out with. Hanging, as a form of execution, until the early 20th century remained still a public event, and were the sporting spectacles, the Saturday football matches, of the day. There have been many horrendous versions, from sharp poles, in cages, upside down for days underneath two hungry dogs, and for centuries, the victims would be strung up or have to step of ladders or stools, after which it might take 20 minutes of writhing to finally die. Some of the worst examples came right into the 20th century with slavery. In Europe, the long-drop technique ensured a quickly break-neck death, and in the late 19th century, the beginnings of official, proper weighing of the condemned ensured a more efficient end.
There are many depictions of such events in film and fiction, but none more powerful than that shown in the great Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Decalog film, A Short Film About Killing, in which a disillusioned young man commits a gut-wrenching, motiveless murder and is eventually hung for his offence. Through the yellowy mustard of amazing cinematographic light filters, it’s a gripping, extraordinary film that captures the grim reality of this process, awful at both ends. And as Aldous Huxley put it, “It takes two to make a murder. There are born victims, born to have their throats cut, as the cut-throats are born to be hanged.”
Hanging has also been mentioned on numerous occasions in the modern political era. In 2002, the calamitous US president (though presidential by the comparison with the current one) George W Bush remarked, tastefully at a public event: “I want to thank you for taking time out of your day to come and witness my hanging.” After an awkward pause, he revealed his joke. “Fortunately, it's my portrait.”
Less jokily, Richard Dawkins said of that era: “If Bush and Blair are eventually put on trial for war crimes, I shall not be among those pressing for them to be hanged.” Noam Chomsky, who knows more about the past 60 years US foreign policy than those who have actually been carrying it out is quick to add this: “If the Nuremberg laws were applied, then every post-war American president would have been hanged.”
And during the cold war itself, these two remarks coming from the US and USSR leaders about each other prove quite revealing. “Khrushchev reminds me of the tiger hunter who has picked a place on the wall to hang the tiger's skin long before he has caught the tiger. This tiger has other ideas,” said John F. Kennedy. Meanwhile, here’s what Nikita Khrushchev said: “Support by United States rulers is rather in the nature of the support that the rope gives to a hanged man.”
“When you reach the end of your rope, tie a knot in it and hang on,” said Franklin D. Roosevelt, and he did so with extraordinary success. If only the US had a Roosevelt to hang on to now. But perhaps the following remark by Charlotte Brontë could be applied to the current president: “Give him enough rope and he will hang himself.”
Talking of which, who hangs himself more than Britain’s international embarrassment and foreign secretary (how? why?) Boris Johnson, seen here in 2012.
Or is this perspective more accurate?
Of course some people don’t do hanging for the punishment we might imagine. Johnson’s fellow Conservative MP Stephen Milligan died in an unfortunate event in 1994, entangling himself in bondage gear in a moment of strange, solitary pleasure, becoming the victim, it was found, of autoerotic asphyxiation. What a way to go, or should I say, come. Accidentally perhaps, nobody really knows, the same deadly thrill apparently left INXS’s Michael Hutchence dead in 1997, and in Thailand, the actor David ‘Kung Fu’ Carradine.
Hanging used to be a public event, but another form of this, and self-punishment appeared in 2003 in Potters Field Park, next to Tower Bridge, the former site of many executions. How come? Well it was talented attention-seeker David Blaine of course, apparently living in a perspex box on nothing but water. And apparently, like in the old days, people hurled fruit and other abuse at him, and one person even dangled a burger form a remote-control mini helicopter to really wind him up.
But let’s move on to different meanings, or at least alternatives to death. “Success seems to be largely a matter of hanging on after others have let go,” says William Feather. “It doesn't take a lot of strength to hang on. It takes a lot of strength to let go,” retorts JC Watts, conversely.
“If you find someone you love in your life, then hang on to that love,” said Diana Princes of Wales, tenaciously, if not with success. I assume she wasn’t talking about Prince Charles, but Hasnat Kahn or Dodi Fayed.
Now some musical visitors are in the Bar. “I think rap music is brought up, gangster rap in particular, as well as video games, every other thing they try to hang the ills of society on as a scapegoat,” says Ice Cube. Hanging out in a more laid back way, here’s Keith Richards: “Hey, we just enjoy it. I think we think we're getting the hang of this thing, you know?” And here’s Adele, cracking a joke about how she deals with fame: “I have insecurities of course, but I don't hang out with anyone who points them out to me.”
In response, looking cheekily up at whatever hangups Adele has, here’s Danny DeVito: “There are two dilemmas that rattle the human skull: How do you hang on to someone who won't stay? And how do you get rid of someone who won't go?”
Perhaps Adele and Danny could pluck a piece of fruit from the tree of Carl Jung. “Great talents are the most lovely and often the most dangerous fruits on the tree of humanity. They hang upon the most slender twigs that are easily snapped off.” Let’s adorn that remark with another form of hanging, and a lovely one at that, the Ancient Assyrian Hanging Gardens of Babylon:
But beware of low-hanging fruit there, or anywhere else:
Now then, back to more driven, creative people, and here’s Josh Homme: “I've always considered myself a workaholic ... The way I work, I have to turn myself upside down and hang myself by my ankles and wring myself out like a wet sweater, and I have to do that with other people, too, because I think that's where something good comes out.” Good on ya, Josh, but don’t fall on your head.
Who might be the next TV presenter president? Let’s try this lady for size. She’d certainly be an improvement. “I remember a specific moment, watching my grandmother hang the clothes on the line, and her saying to me, 'you are going to have to learn to do this,' and me being in that space of awareness and knowing that my life would not be the same as my grandmother's life.” Who said this? Oprah Winfrey of course.
And using the same image. Here’s tenacious Patti Smith. “My mother had no end of tragedy in her life. She would make herself get up and take a deep breath and go out and do laundry. Hang up sheets.”
I could hang out here for days talking about hanging, adorning the Bar with painting, pictures, but how about if we borrow the Dale Chihuly chandelier from the Victoria and Albert Museum? Not bad, eh? Other pendant lights are available.
So ... now I’ve run out of time to do a bungie jump, or show you pictures of bats, or old-fashioned telephones and other metaphors that regularly crop up in song lyrics, but I’ll leave you with a quote from Nick Cave who adorns his wife Susie with his ideas: “My muse is my wife. It's not some vague thing that flutters around the atmosphere or wherever it is. Sometimes as a songwriter you need something to hang a song on, to give it some kind of presence and form.” We all need someone to hang things on, don't we?
So then, this week’s hanging judge and dangling director of suspense, is, I’m delighted to say, is that fantastic narrator, nosuchzone, returning for a second helping. Please hang up your songs in the hooks provided in comments below in time for the deadline – 11pm UK time on Monday. Playlists will be published on Wednesday. I leave you with an obvious image to munch on, but I’m sure the results will be very tasty indeed.
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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.