The Song Bar belches out the last lingering patrons for the week. The poor jukebox has lost its voice after another frenzied session, the barstools are breathing a sigh of relief and the puns are getting their coats. The Landlord and I are left alone with my avatar, John Milton, who eagerly starts reading his new poem to us.
“John,” I interrupt, “I’ve got to tell you some of this is a tad overwrought. You know, those wags from Half Man Half Biscuit are saying you’re the reason Paradise lost. LCD Soundsystem reckon you might be losing your edge – to better-looking people with better ideas and more talent. Let’s see if we can get that jukebox back into action and take a listen to some fresh slants on personification …
This week’s bag of nominations revealed mostly harsh, lonely and insomniac metropolises. Here’s a fine example, being harangued by Mike Heron of The Incredible String Band in Mercy I Cry City. Heron’s city is a scheming charlatan looking to disguise an empty soul, a self-destructive hustler with a fading grasp on reality, and a personification of socially alienating forces (“sometimes I think you keep forgetting that you don’t know me”). All crammed into a capricious three-minute psychedelic folk song. “Since you got me here, I see you’re trying to steal my soul. Your army’s trying so very hard to find for me a goal … You cover up your emptiness with brick and noise and rush. Oh, I can see and touch you but you don’t owe reality much.”
From the dehumanising experience of city life to getting trapped in the places that breed and shape us. You’re in a gas station diner in the Tennessee county of your birth. Philip Jeays starts to throw in some snatches of personification – lazy brown hair falling on your shoulder, clouds stitching the skies, a laughing wind. You’re determined to leave and go far away. But hold up, “there’s a smile in the eyes of Perry County, there’s nothing you can say he hasn’t heard before. He’s watched the young girls smile, he’s watched the old men dreaming, and he’s watched them watch together as the young men go to war.” Oof, as they say.
In a sonnet of 1814, John Keats celebrated his continent’s liberation from Napoleon and called on Europa to guard her new-won freedom (“Keep thy chains burst and boldly say thou art free”). Slapp Happy and Henry Cow encounter the same Europa in more desperate straits, opening her weary eyes to find all her pretty cities levelled to the ground. “Sweet continent, courage, don’t cry,” urges singer Dagmar Krause. And who’s to blame? It’s that old (personified) scoundrel, Reason, whose acts of treason have shot to hell what heaven sent. Any resemblance with current European affairs is purely coincidental.
Your nominations embraced personified musical forms ranging from the childbearing blues (jeez, that kid’s going to have to put up with some ribbing at school with a name like Rock ’n’ Roll), through the Afro-Caribbean rhythms woven into American jazz, to a disco queen who’s taken music as her lover. But an insistent pit-patting in my head somehow made me pick out the irrepressible Ella Fitzgerald, slaying George and Ira Gershwin’s Fascinating Rhythm. The rhythm is driving her insane, arriving without warning, hanging around all day and making a mess about the house. “Oh, won’t you take a day off, won’t you stop picking on me?”
I listened this week to a rum bunch of singers, conversing with the likes of death, fate, luck and love. Here are two examples of what I’ve now come to think of as the Paul Simon syndrome (“Hello darkness, my old friend, I’ve come to talk to you again”), though the British Psychological Society has yet to get back to me about my proposed research thesis. First off, Rokia Traoré from Mali, entreating her faithful companion Mélancolie to sing and dance with her. If Google Translate is to be trusted, this melancholy is quite an ambiguous character, somehow helping silence the torments that haunt the singer and allowing her to hear a (personified) hope murmuring its sweet and gentle words.
We follow on with Sandra Carrasco and the sparking flamenco of Hola Soledad. This possibly embodies the obverse of the Paul Simon syndrome: not seeking out your friend for nocturnal conversation, but passively waiting and knowing they’re going to come knocking on your door whether you like it or not. “Hello loneliness, I was waiting for you tonight. And although I don’t tell you anything, my sadness is so great that you know my pain.”
From a small but intriguing clutch of suggestions on this theme, I’ve chosen The Young’uns and their a cappella paean to Jack Ironside. Jack is the personification of their native Teesside’s iron and steel industry, which bowed out four years ago after a 170-year run. The giant Redcar blast furnace stood as tall as St Paul’s Cathedral. “I goes by the name Jack Ironside. I comes up the river on the mornin’ tide … I’ll find meself a job to do. There’s iron ore in those hills and I will smelt it down for you.” Bonus points for shrieking sirens, moaning turbines and groaning motors.
Almost in a category of their own this week, Bill Wells & Aidan Moffatt serve up some wry wordplay in We’re Still Here, a song featuring a string of local shops that have closed down in ironic circumstances befitting their choice of merchandise. Not all the examples are personification, but they include a vets’ surgery that’s been put to sleep, a pharmacy that’s overdosed, a travel agency that’s taken an extended holiday, a job centre that’s now seeking a new career, and a pub that’s sunk its last beer.
We heard in force this week from softly-spoken rivers, laughing crystal lakes, lonely seas, ebb tides rushing in to plant their kisses on the shore, and raging oceans vainly attempting to explain the human condition. Indian Ocean sing what for me was the most uplifting aqueous personification of the topic, a hymn of thanks to Maa Rewa, another name for the mighty Narmada, one of the seven holy rivers of India. Translations vary – the general gist seems to be “Mother Rewa, your water is so pure … people serve you and their service brings blessings in return”. But the precise words don’t matter – just soak up the reverence and gratitude in the music.
Weather and the seasons
I had to take shelter from an assortment of singing winds, weeping clouds, rain telling me what a fool I’ve been, thunder singing requiems and lightning taking pictures. Spring leading us in the dance, summer holding its breath too long, autumn breathing down our neck. But for deftness of lyrical touch, I’m not sure you can beat Summer Wind, sung here with incomparable panache by Frank Sinatra. The original was released in Germany as Der Sommerwind; it was then re-written by Johnny Mercer, reportedly Sinatra’s favourite lyricist. “The summer wind came blowin’ in from across the sea. It lingered there to touch your hair and walk with me.” During that brief summer, Frank, his girlfriend and the wind stroll happily along the sands together. But winds are fickle friends …
Neko Case once had a dream about a tornado that had fallen in love with a human being it had spotted from on high. This was the starting point for the gorgeous, impressionistic This Tornado Loves You. Sung from the tornado’s point of view, but without tritely humanising it. The tornado carves its loved one’s name across three counties in a rage of infatuation. It waits with a glacier’s patience (excellent extra personification, there). It will do anything to prove its love.
There were dozens of tunes that I eventually led sulking off the A-list because their examples of personification were confined to one albeit excellent line. But I decided to let this old friend stay. Partly because it was the song that provided chance inspiration for this topic when I was on holiday a fortnight ago. And partly because there’s something about Bob Marley’s rendition that gives the line extra resonance, helping usher in the darkness of the Concrete Jungle he goes on to describe. “No sun will shine in my day today” is nothing special as an opening gambit. But it’s followed by “The high yellow moon won’t come out to play” – and now we’re off to the races.
So how to round off the A-list? I didn’t have much choice in the end, as this song came bouncing down the road, gave me a giant hug, asked terribly politely to be included, and is now happily dad-dancing with John Milton. It’s the Electric Light Orchestra of course – and Mr Blue Sky, just possibly the epitome of personification in popular song. Thanks, everyone – it’s been fascinating, though maybe next time I’d like to guru something like songs about sheds.
The Aspirating Air A-list playlist:
The Incredible String Band – Mercy I Cry City
Philip Jeays – Perry County
Slapp Happy & Henry Cow – Europa
Ella Fitzgerald – Fascinating Rhythm
Rokia Traoré – Mélancolie
Sandra Carrasco – Hola Soledad
The Young’uns – Jack Ironside
Bill Wells & Aidan Moffatt – We’re Still Here
Indian Ocean – Maa Rewa
Frank Sinatra – Summer Wind
Neko Case – This Tornado Loves You
Bob Marley & The Wailers – Concrete Jungle
Electric Light Orchestra – Mr Blue Sky
The Babbling Brooks B-list playlist:
Grace Jones – The Apple Stretching
(“The sun comes swaggering across the harbour and kisses the lady waiting in the narrows … It’s just the apple stretching and yawning, just morning, New York putting its feet on the floor.” An A-lister until I realised it was zedded. Took some un-nailing.)
Julian Cope – World Shut Your Mouth
(“She’s singing ‘world shut your mouth … put your head back in the clouds and shut your mouth’.”)
Reparata & The Delrons – Captain of Your Ship
(“This is the captain of your ship, your heart speaking …”)
The Auteurs – Bailed Out
(“This party will start to drag you down, slap your face and pull your hair.”)
Ann Peebles – I Can’t Stand the Rain
(“Hey, window pane, do you remember how sweet it used to be?”)
The Meters – Mister Moon
(“It was the fifth of June. Looking up at the moon, I said mister what’s in store for me. I had a sneaky suspicion he heard what he said, ’cos he seemed to look back at me.”)
Art Pepper – Ol’ Man River
(I thought it would be nice to have at least one instrumental, and what better choice than this.)
B. J. Thomas – Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head
(“So I just did me some talking to the sun. And I said I didn’t like the way he got things done, sleeping on the job.”)
James Brown – King Heroin
(“I came to this country without a passport … I take my addicts and make ’em steal, borrow, beg.”)
The Very Things – The Bushes Scream While My Daddy Prunes
(“I’m going pruning! Pruning, pruning, pruning, pruning, pruning …”)
The Kinks – Big Sky
(“Big sky looked down on all the people … Big sky feels sad when he sees the children scream and cry. But the big sky’s too big to let it get him down.”)
Richard Strauss – September (from Four Last Songs, sung by Jessye Norman)
(“Summer shudders quietly to its close … Summer smiles, amazed and exhausted, on the dying dream that was this garden … Still it tarries, yearns for rest, slowly closes its weary eyes.”)
Def Leppard – Love Bites
(“Love bites, love bleeds, love lives, love dies, love begs, love pleads.” Nominator Abahachi compared these lyrics to one of Virgil’s Eclogues, and who am I to disagree?)
Guru’s Wildcard Pick:
Black Star (feat. Common) – Respiration
Mos Def, Talib Kweli and Common roam the city streets at night. The respiration of the title is the city’s own. Eat your heart out, Milton!
So much on my mind, I just can’t recline,
Blastin’ holes in the night till she bled sunshine.
Breathe in, inhale vapours from bright stars that shine,
Breathe out, green smoke retrace the skyline.
Yo, don’t the bass ride out like an ancient mating call?
I can’t take it, y’all, I can feel the city breathing,
Chest heaving against the flesh of the evening,
Sigh before we die like the last train leaving.
These playlists were inspired by readers' song nominations from last week's topic: We're only human: songs using lyrical personification. The next topic will launch on Thursday at 1pm UK time.
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