By The Landlord
"When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time." – Maya Angelou
"Thou know'st the first time that we smell the air we wawl and cry … When we are born we cry, that we are come to this great state of fools." – William Shakespeare - King Lear, Act 4, Sc. 6
"I remember the first time I had sex - I kept the receipt." – Groucho Marx
It's never too late to try something for the first time, is it? Such as trying a new food, or visiting a new country. Doing the things you'd always promised yourself? Sorry, not for the first time, I have to stop for a moment because Joan Rivers has arrrived, already propping up the bar, demanding attention, and annoyed that she hasn't been quoted at the top of the bill. Go on then, Joan: "The first time I see a jogger smiling, I'll consider it." OK, let's run with that.
But first time also means facing some fears. Or does it? Standing up on stage to do comedy? Joan? Doing a parachute jump? Cold water swimming? OK, I'm upping the stakes now. But perhaps there are some things I will never do for the first, or last time, such as cage fighting with barbed-wire weapons, or putting my genitals in a blender. Or, indistinguishable for me, voting for certain people of a rightwing persuasion. I would do anything for Song Bar, but I won't do that.
But this week our theme is all about those formative moments and experiences captured in song through events and emotions in lyric and sound. They could also be about the last time, but we'll come to that later. The first time doesn't only refer to early childhood, or teenage years, but any moment in life, yet of course memories of earlier experiences can feel the most immediate, and powerful. They could be new physical sensations, seeing a face or place, smelling something, a spectrum of emotions containing fear or joy, a revelation, a surprise, or a great catharsis. But what, for example? Now then, you don't want to hear about my first time(s) (do you?) so instead let us have a chat to this week's visitors at the bar, a varied and stimulating crowd, with a whole variety of perspectives to stimulate your ideas.
"The first time" more often than not is associated with some kind of sexual encounter, either a first kiss, or a lot of fumbling beyond. But there is so much more to this theme than the first twitchings of libido. In another galaxy some time ago, a topic of first love was looked at, but other than 10 songs chosen at that time, that still leaves many other contenders that can be applied here. Alongside this is the revelatory musical and emotional moment you hear a song for the first time, and who better to kick out our in-house entertainment than the great Stevie Wonder? The first time I heard this, not only did it completely apply to somebody I was thinking about in my own life, but I was also instantly in love with his music:
But hearing music for the first time doesn't necessarily have a lasting impression. It can change considerably. Diana Ross, in a wave of glamour, swans gracefully into the bar. With her entourage she orders champagne (not just any old riff raff here, y'know), and reveals the following error of judgment in her youth: "The first time I heard a Billie Holiday record, I thought, 'What's so great about Billie Holiday?" I'm guessing your changed your mind then, Diana.
Now Mick Jagger swaggers into the bar. What have you got for us Sir Mick? "Well, yeah, people love talking about when they were young and heard Honky Tonk Women for the first time. It's quite a heavy load to carry on your shoulders, the memories of so many people." It's certainly a great song, Mick. Thanks for that. Must for heavy for you. Sounds like you love talking about it too.
But some artists take a little getting used to. Tom Waits wasn't my cup of tea initially, but then somehow he grows on your like a sort of benign fungus. He's a tobacco-stained oak-smoked finest whisky that matures with age. Here, in another apt song chosen for another topic, he talks about his first kiss.
So there's a whole heap of first-love songs out there to pick out and ponder, and some of them are even more romantic than Groucho Marx's first encounter. But there's more to life than sex, isn't there? Around it, at least. And sex isn't usually that great the first time, though we're tend to never forget it. But some things have to be just right the first time, otherwise they'll be the last. Once bitten twice shy. Or at least you'd think that. Jackie Onassis Kennedy, currently portrayed in a new film starring Natalie Portman, has a rare moment to talk in front of all the men in her life: "The first time you marry for love, the second for money, and the third for companionship." Or maybe some more money, Jackie.
But lover or other, you sometimes still have to make that leap. The anthropologist Margaret Mead said, "Life in the twentieth century is like a parachute jump: you have to get it right the first time." This is just as well at least for Felix Baumgartner, the American skydiver and basejumper, who in 2012 made an unprecedented record leap from space, 29km above Earth, and lived to tell the tale. Take a look at this footage if you dare. Thankfully now he's done it, I don't have to. Phew, that's something else crossed off the list. The action really gets going from about 2mins 40sec.
Not all first time experiences are so extreme. Some can be far more nuanced. Maya Angelou's remark above, "When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time," rings as true as the a lark in spring. Many times I have had an instant first impression of someone, then changed my mind when getting to know them more, but then eventually found that the first view of them, for better or worse, turned out to be correct. Retrospectively it seems some deeper, wiser, subconscious perception was at work, and calls to be heard. Has anyone else found this?
Now we usher in an impressive band of musical guests into the bar. Bringing up the rhythm section, here's Radiohead's drummer, Philip Selway, as correct and astute in conversation as he with his hands or feet at the kit: "Listening back to your speaking voice for the first time, unless you're James Earl Jones, it's a quite distressing process for most people."
Hearing your own voice from a relatively point of objectivity is certainly peculiar, but even the most insecure can find utter joy in it. Talking of which, on vocals here's Janis Joplin, putting it all perfectly: "When I sing, I feel like when you're first in love. It's more than sex. It's that point two people can get to they call love, when you really touch someone for the first time, but it's gigantic, multiplied by the whole audience. I feel chills."
So let's enjoy a little bit of Janis, raising spirits, as well as hands, in this great clip of her in 1969 with Tom Jones:
In music or any other context, the freshness of first-time experience is key. And now here's the great guitarist Robert Fripp to add new chords to the dimension: "The quality of artistry is the capacity to assume innocence at will, the quality of experiencing innocence as if for the first time." How brilliant is that observation? We must always keep part of ourselves innocent in order to enjoy things, and hold back the cynical seen-it-all editor in our heads. Not holding back the cynic might lead to to this quip by US comedian Dennis Miller: "Born again?! No, I'm not. Excuse me for getting it right the first time." Maybe Shakespeare was right. We're all born fools, more or less.
Still, the state of mind needed to experience things for the first time can also take on an almost metaphysical, or surreal quality. Here's the poet Walt Whitman, capturing something akin to sleep and dreams: "I cannot be awake for nothing looks to me as it did before, Or else I am awake for the first time, and all before has been a mean sleep." Perhaps that's where that mixture of innocence and experience comes in again. After all, each day when we wake, we are briefly experiencing life for the first time. In that state, many artists have managed to capture some of their greatest ideas. David Bowie for one spent much of his career intelligently channelling his subconscious in between sleep deprivation, sex and drugs. It's an aim he set at the beginning of his career:
Now here's another poet, Emily Dickinson, telling us how first experiences can be cathartic: "Whenever a thing is done for the first time, it releases a little demon." And the ballet great, Margot Fonteyn put is her way: "Minor things can become moments of great revelation when encountered for the first time."
Another great joy is hearing or using words for the first time, especially when they appear in lyrics. Or reading and understanding words such as mumpsimus, snollygoster, eucatastrophe, or fugacious. So now, who's that burly man in a jumper in the corner? It's Ernest Hemingway: "All my life I've looked at words as though I were seeing them for the first time." And the writer Christopher Hitchens is here to give us some more examples: "Every now and then I will see a word as if for the first time, and suddenly appreciate that Evian is 'naive' spelled backward, or that Bosnia is an anagram of 'bonsai.'"
And a final first experience many of your song choices might also touch on are visiting a place. New York, for example, so familiar in films, rarely disappoints when you get there, and there are plenty of songs that capture that first time. How many millions of immigrants arrived for the first time, filled with hopes and dreams? And now, perhaps they are doing it for the last time.
And yet some can give a more humorous view. Here's that gently spoken poet Simon Armitage on seeing his name up in lights: "I once stood in the middle of New York city watching my name go round the electronic zipper sign in Times Square and I felt pretty thrilled, but not quite as thrilled as I felt when I saw my name in the 'Examiner' for the first time." Bookish to the first and last, Simon.
The great Sir David Attenborough has probably seen more places on Earth than anyone. It is always magical to have him drop in to the bar. Everyone goes completely quiet, and listens to his every golden word. So what place thrilled him the most? "I can mention many moments that were unforgettable and revelatory. But the most single revelatory three minutes was the first time I put on scuba gear and dived on a coral reef. It's just the unbelievable fact that you can move in three dimensions." The great unexplored world.
And … last?
And now for the last time. Is there really ever such a thing? How many bands have said they are are doing their last ever tour? How many boxers have retired and then made a sometimes mistaken comeback? Here's the Who's Roger Daltrey being honest about it: "I don't think you should ever say, 'This is the last time'. Music isn't like that. You'll be sitting there not wishing to get onto a stage again for maybe two, three, four, five months, or maybe a year, then suddenly you'll wake up and feel like you've got to do it again. It's in the blood, and I never say never."
And Eminem, who has gone through the success-collapse cycle a couple of times at least, affirms: "I always try to be smart. I try to treat all the money I'm making like it's the last time I'm going to make it." Yes, until the next time.
So, as that 1960s altered-state cultural figure Timothy Leary put it: "You're only as young as the last time you changed your mind."
So there are many songs where "the last time" is expressed, often more with emotion than rationale, and these might make a balance, or at least a coda to your first-time songs. The only last time you can be sure of is from death, or, for example, in that moment when much of the UK celebrated in November 1990 when on live TV, Margaret Thatcher in an apparently deluded and delirious state, wandered out of 10 Downing Street and said those immortal words. "We are leaving Downing Street for the last time ..." And that part was, for once, actually true. Though definitely not the rest of what she said. Shudder.
And so for this topic, and tending our glorious bar not for the first, nor hopefully the last time, but always for very welcome time, is the tremendous takeitawayGuru. Place your songs capturing firsts and lasts in comments below. Last orders will be called on Monday evening, for publication on Wednesday morning UK time. As ever at Song Bar, we're not only always thirsty, and also feisty, but also firsty.
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