By The Landlord
“‘The best conversation I had was over forty million years ago,' continued Marvin.”
– Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe
“I had not, I said to myself, come into the future to carry on a miniature flirtation.”
– HG Wells, The Time Machine
“History doesn't repeat itself, but it harmonises, and what it usually makes is the devil's music.” – Stephen King
“You're just not thinking fourth dimensionally.” – Doc Brown, Back to the Future
“How soon is now?” – The Smiths
Time is a concept, that the more you think about, the less clear it becomes. The present is here now, and then – pfft! – it’s suddenly gone. We try to preserve it in our own jars, not only in terms of time measurements and dates, but other containers that might take many forms – diaries, photographs, films, pieces of writing, art, songs, or indeed playlists. But like the current wintry weather, it’s a slippery business, is this thing called time, and as Douglas Adams describes in the same book as quoted above in which also the miserable robot Marvin harks back to the past, and sighs at the stupid present and future, we hear that: “There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.”
But time in songs, as confusing as the idea may be, is a potent and powerful theme, and this week we’re looking at travelling in time. This could be the stuff we associate with science fiction, of songs that tell of going back or forward to another era, but also, in terms of memory or other metaphorical or psychological processes, thinking about being in another time, and therefore also place, and perhaps imagining you’d said or done something there, or not said or done something, or imagining a future event. This thought process, expressed in lyrics also comes with a whole variety of emotions – regret, melancholy, happiness, hope, despair, and everything in between. And just to differentiate from a previous topic, songs about alternative outcomes, we’re looking for a different emphasis in lyrics here, less about how events or circumstances could have been different now, but the actual travelling to or being in another moment or period and what that means, and what it feels like.
And so, unsurprisingly, we welcome a distinguished company of bar guests to talk more about this topic. Einstein, his ideas or his brain, is often in our thoughts here, and Stephen Hawking opens the discussion: “Time travel used to be thought of as just science fiction, but Einstein's general theory of relativity allows for the possibility that we could warp space-time so much that you could go off in a rocket and return before you set out.”
“I agree,” says the physicist, Brian Greene. “The bottom line is that time travel is allowed by the laws of physics.”
Hawking also puts forward the question that if time travel were possible then why don’t we have time tourists among us now. Though, I reckon, who is to say we don’t? “But even if it turns out that time travel is impossible," he adds, "it is important that we understand why it is impossible.”
Another theoretical physical, Michio Kaku, goes into more detail: “In Einstein's equation, time is a river. It speeds up, meanders, and slows down. The new wrinkle is that it can have whirlpools and fork into two rivers. So, if the river of time can be bent into a pretzel, create whirlpools and fork into two rivers, then time travel cannot be ruled out.”
What makes the idea of time travel so interesting is the awful mess it can get you into. In Douglas Adams’s same book when the hapless human Arthur Dent remarks, with classic English understatedness at his disastrous situation, “I seem to be having difficulty with my lifestyle”, it sets off a chain of events in another galaxy that has unfortunate consequences, his remark disappearing down a wormhole and coming out as a war-inducing insult about the mother of the G’Gugvunt leader by his opposite number from the Vl’Hurgs:
And so it makes me wonder, when Arnold Schwarzenegger goes back in time as the Terminator, and utters phrases such as “I’LL BE BECK!”, in a future dimension does a mass riot break out when thousands of ticket holders expect to see him perform clever indie music as pretty-faced skinny American blond-haired musician with a cowboy hat? Words, they can certainly cause wrinkles in time too …
Salman Rushdie has rushed into the bar now, under the impression there’s a book club event, and is eager to read from his own Luka and the Fire of Life, in which all kinds of time slips and confusions, not to mention literary and TV allusions occur:
“Running along the bank was a white rabbit wearing a waistcoat and looking worriedly at a clock. Appearing and disappearing at various points on both banks was a dark blue British police telephone booth, out of which a perplexed-looking man holding a screwdriver would periodically emerge. A group of dwarf bandits could be seen disappearing into a hole in the sky. "Time travellers," said Nobodaddy in a voice of gentle disgust. "They're everywhere these days.”
And after going down a brief Monty Python-shped wormhole conceived by Terry Gilliam in the form of Time Bandits, Salman’s now got others going with their oeuvres. Here’s William Gibson, reading from The Peripheral:
“You're from the future, Mr Netherton?"
"Not exactly," he said. "I'm in the future that would result from my not being here. But since I am, it isn't your future. Here.”
Margaret Atwood’s here too. She’s ordered tea and a couple of sherries, and is now reading from Cat’s Eye: “Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space. If you can bend space you can bend time also, and if you knew enough and could move faster than light you could travel backward in tie and exist in two places at once.”
And on a particularly song-relevant theme: “I loved you backward and forward in time. I loved you beyond boundaries of time and space.”, says Dan Simmons, reading from Endymion.
“Imagination makes us aware of limitless possibilities. How many of us haven't pondered the concept of infinity or imagined the possibility of time travel? In one of her poems, Emily Bronte likens imagination to a constant companion, but I prefer to think of it as a built-in entertainment system, says the Australian children’s author, Alexandra Adornetto.
Finally, Swedish novelist Hakan Nesser sums things up with: “A good story can travel in time and borders; it hits you no matter where you are.”
But beyond all the books and corduroy-trouser wearers, it’s the musicians in the bar who remind us that this is actually a song topic, and Tom Waits, supping on oodles of black coffee, grins and utters, with a cheerful grumble and alternative perspective about what his form does: “Songs really are like a form of time travel because they really have moved forward in a bubble. Everyone who's connected with it, the studio's gone, the musicians are gone, and the only thing that's left is this recording which was only about a three-minute period maybe 70 years ago.”
Jools Holland’s also here, and not wanting to miss out on the act, tells us that time travel is really just travel: “Whenever I go on holiday, I like to time travel and imagine what it must have been like 500 years ago. I love the Tuscan landscape, which is reminiscent of a Claude Lorrain painting.”
“Well,” says the British-Canadian actress and presenter Hannah Simone, “If I could travel back in time, I'd bring back the entire Wu-Tang Clan.” Really? Do you want to go back to a period in ancient China, who do you simply want to hang out with a revived Ol’ Dirty Bastard?
The science presenter Bill Nye also here and makes a more interesting point: “When we see the shadow on our images, are we seeing the time 11 minutes ago on Mars? Or are we seeing the time on Mars as observed from Earth now? It's like time travel problems in science fiction. When is now; when was then?” Good point, Bill. That should stimulate a few song ideas.
But whichever era this topic takes you do, over to you, dear readers, to make of time travel in song whatever. To start things off, here’s a song, or indeed a time machine to jump into. Get in there quick before anyone else, time is short. Or is it?
Who is this week’s time-travelling tourist guide par excellence? It’s the wonderful Doctor EnglishOutlaw, that’s who. Place you nominations in comments below in time for deadline on Monday (11pm UK time) for playlists published on Wednesday. Some of you of course may be able to travel into the future to see what they will be right now. If you can, then let me know. But perhaps it’s the travelling, before the arrival, that’s just as much fun.
New to comment? It is quick and easy. You just need to login to Disqus once. All is explained in About/FAQs ...
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.