By The Landlord
“Every bad situation is a blues song waiting to happen.” – Amy Winehouse
“The world is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.” – Bertrand Russell
“I grew up with six brothers. That's how I learned to dance – waiting for the bathroom.” – Bob Hope
“Ten men waiting for me at the door? Send one of them home, I'm tired.” – Mae West
Is life a waiting game, one in which you just have to keep busy? Right now, as I write this, I’m waiting for a plumber and also some plumbing parts to be delivered, separately. It’s unlikely that they’ll arrive in the right order. It’s a leaky, poorly co-ordinated and communicated mess, and that’s not a bad description of a greater pattern. I’m doing my best, not to just hang around, but to do something constructive right now, but often in such a situation the mind slips into limbo, like a car’s gearbox going into neutral, like a lovelorn teenager waiting for a text, like a cat licking its bits then staring into space, or like a Brexit Britain becoming less and less able to basically govern, feed, clothe or take care of itself, in a stupid paralysis of self-argument and uncertainty.
And we all spend an inordinate amount of our time waiting, for traffic lights, deliveries, opportunities, travel delays, for children to get dressed, for the right mood, good weather, ideal conditions, luck, the right person, for a transaction to complete, for an email to arrive, for the spinning wheel on your screen to stop, for death, for the end of the world. Impatience and relief go round in a constant cycle. In those ‘dead’ moments, self-help books tell us to be ‘mindful’, to write a poem or empty your mind and take deep breaths while the traffic light is on red. But who really does that?
So much waiting frustrates the world of work, from the waffle at a meeting, for the photocopier to be free, for the phone to ring, but also, in leisure, there’s a remarkable amount of it too. In many sports for example – cricket, baseball, athletics, or even football – there are many more breaks than we realise, and very little action. In an average day’s cricket, usually six or more hours on the pitch, how much average time is actually spent in live action from when the ball is released by the bowler to when it is returned to the wicket keeper? Just 11 minutes! So very much of life is all about anticipation-filled chatter, and then post-action discussion. Perhaps that’s what we are really built for.
But you don’t need to wait for me to deliver. You don’t wait around to nominate songs about the subject of waiting, because this very activity has spawned some of the finest work in music history. Many great songs are fuelled by the turbulent emotions of waiting and wondering about what might happen, often for a particular person to respond or how they feel, usually in the context of a lover. Anticipation and anxiety are potent forces for a lyric writer – a way to cope.
So for example Bob Marley didn’t want to wait in vain. Ray Davies, even as a college student was tired of waiting. Donovan wrote a rare protest-context song about waiting for a woman called Susan from the point of view of a solider in the Vietnam War. Foreigner flooded the airwaves for ever, waiting for a girl like you. I couldn't wait for it to disappear from the charts. Noel Gallagher described the process of anticipation to get together with his now wife as waiting for the rapture. George Michael focused his own relationship problem by waiting for the day. But could there be any more passionate expression of waiting, and final release, than by singer, growler and extraordinary mover Samuel T Herring, when his band got their big break and appeared on the David Letterman show?
But waiting doesn’t necessary have to be in a romantic context. Keith and Mick probably didn’t ever wait for a woman, but for once, in a more more mature context, they waited for a friend. Gretchen Peters used the metaphor or the great flying pioneer Amelia Earhart as a way of expressing ways to wait for her own potential. In more down-to-earth ways, ZZ Top, and several others, including Violent Femmes, know how to wait for the bus in style. For this topic it's also handy to think of many activities that involve waiting, but don't necessarily use that word, such as hitchhiking. Phil Lynott waited for an alibi as way to deal with his various vices, and in one song and one context, gambling. And for other vices, several well-known artists have waited for 'the man'. Many have also waited for the night, the light, or the morning, or more nebulously, one fine day. Will it arrive? The point is what happens while you wait.
But while I’ve been waiting to open up the Bar, suddenly it is full of punters and guests queuing up, not just to get served, but also to talk about the subject of waiting. Here’s chirpy Alex Turner of Arctic Monkeys, who never hangs around much when he’s thinking about his next song:
“Sometimes, writing songs is like waiting in for deliveries. They give you a window, and your washing machine is going to show up, whether the window is the album or something you're thinking, like, 'This thing is going to come to me.’” That’s very positive Alex, and obviously it almost always arrives.
Now here’s New Order’s Bernard Sumner who has dropped in to chat about the less glamorous and otherwise sides of going on the road: “There's parts of touring I like. I like the actual performance part, but the bit when you're in the airport waiting at the carousel for your bags to come around, I don't like that a bit.” But is that when great songs are written?
The great Glenn Gould, extraordinary and often oddly behaved pianist, was never a fan of touring, but here turns this topic towards the audience. “There’s a very curious and – and almost sadistic lust for blood that overcomes the concert listener, and there's a waiting for it to happen: a waiting for the horn to fluff; a waiting for the strings to become ragged; a waiting for the conductor to forget the subdivide, you know? And it's dreadful!”
So waiting can be painful, if that’s how your perceive it. But it can also be exciting. American author Jean Houston sees waiting in a very positive light. “We all have the extraordinary coded within us, waiting to be released.” Also seeing the bigger perspective, but with a more mischievous, darker humour, is author Terry Pratchett: “Light thinks it travels faster than anything but it is wrong. No matter how fast light travels, it finds the darkness has always got there first, and is waiting for it."
So what are we all waiting for? Samuel Beckett's 'Waiting for Godot? But what, or who is Godot? The point, I suppose, is neither, just what happens while we’re waiting:
Waiting is a constant part of any actors life, to rehearse, to come on, and to go off. And now as we’ve briefly jumped on the Song Bar stage, and await the final curtain call, I leave you with a remark from a British film star of the 1930s, 40s and 50s, Anna Neagle:
“The important thing about learning to wait, I feel sure, is to know what you are waiting for.”
And so then, wait no further to nominate your songs on this topic. But waiting in the wings and at the very front of the queue to listen to you, I’m delighted to welcome the return of the perfectly patient Rachel Courtney, aka uneasy listening, whose excellent Philadelphia-based and topic-themed radio show can be found at uneasylistening.org. And in particular, if you search this site, you might just find, not by coincidence, a show that will help inspire you with a few songs on this very topic. I await, with great anticipation your songs’ arrival. I'm sure, as ever you'll deliver.
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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.