By The Landlord
Outside in the street I hear
A car door slam; voices coming near;
Incoherent scraps of talk
And high heels clicking up the walk;
The doorbell rends the noonday heat
With copper claws;
A second's pause.
The dull drums of my pulses beat
Against a silence wearing thin.
The door now opens from within.
Oh, hear the clash of people meeting —
The laughter and the screams of greeting …
Like a diver on a lofty spar of land
Atop the flight of stairs I stand.
A whirlpool leers at me,
I cast off my identity
And make the fatal plunge. – Sylvia Plath, Family Reunion
It can be a bit on the embarrassing side. You know, those occasions where you're shopping, queuing, or in some other confined space, such as on a train, and someone says hello to you. Now, you know their face, but you just can't place it. And then you engage in that tricky game of chatting to them, in a friendly fashion ("Hi. How's it going …?") as if you know them, but at the same time trying to work out who they are, but you don't want them to realise you're still trying to doing this, asking such not-so-subtle questions as "when was the last time we talked about this?", or "what have you been doing since I last saw you?"
And then eventually, if the penny doesn't drop, they see you're just playing for time and you just have to admit your poor memory, or say farewell and wonder – who the hell was that? Yes indeed, a bit awkward, especially if the person you've bumped into is the one you went out with last night, slept with, had breakfast with, and then said you'd call them. Or it's your wife, husband, girlfriend or boyfriend.
Joking aside, this did actually happen to a friend of mine. She does suffer from a partial form of prosopagnosia, a neurological disorder which inhibits the ability to recognise faces. It can end up with amusing stories, but it's also very inconvenient and embarrassing. And when I say 'friend', I don't mean me, although, I do sometimes fail to remember people. I tend to remember more what they say than what they look like. And once I failed to recognise an ex-girlfriend, well, she was more of a fling, but at least that was from years ago. Awkward or what?
So this week, we're looking for songs about reunions, being reunited, seeing someone again after a period of time has passed. That could be an ex-lover, some family, an old friend, or even an enemy. But generally that means recognising them. It certainly helps. Even if they've changed. Describing that moment can instantly offer up great dramatic turns for a narrative, and highly charged emotions, where memories and feelings flood back, from joy to old feuds, embraces to embarrassment, passion to panic.
Reunion can be by accident or on purpose, it can fuel a plot, as an act of love, or revenge, striving to get back through danger to loved ones, or pass through danger to seek revenge. It's not just the stuff of many songs but also books and films, the cogs on which human motivation turns. It comes in everything from Shakespeare to Scorsese, Dickens to Philip K Dick.
The most potent examples are often based on real-life events. Alexandre Dumas's fictional Count of Monte Cristo was inspired by the story of shoemaker Pierre Picaud, living in Nîmes in 1807, who was engaged to marry a rich woman when three jealous friends falsely accused him of being a spy for England. Picaud was imprisoned for three years, before reuniting with his old friends for knife-wielding revenge.
Sometimes however, reunions aren't what they seem. The 1982 film, The Return of Martin Guerre, is based on the story of a 16th-century Frenchman returning from war to his family and village, but who was in fact man stealing the real husband's identity.
In Total Recall, based in Philip K Dick’s book, Arnold Schwarzenegger is aggressively search of his true self, as an inter-planetary double agent, and haphazardly seeks reunion with his lover and his former enemies. Then on the flipside, Mad Men's Don Draper, the Manhattan advertising star, who has a real identity as Dick Whitman and stole the real Draper's identity, spends most of the hit TV series escaping it, and avoiding reunion with his true origins.
The powerful film 12 Years a Slave (2013), directed by Steve McQueen, is an adaptation of the slave narrative memoir of 1853 by Solomon Northup, a New York State-born free African-American man who was kidnapped in Washington, DC by two conmen in 1841. Broken after years of horrendous cruelty and confinement, he is finally freed and reunited with his family in one of the most tear-jerking scenes in modern cinema.
Family reunions can be extraordinarily powerful after long periods of absence, and even more so when siblings separated at birth by circumstances such as war, emigration and fostering, when they are reunited years later, as familiar strangers. Such scenes can touch and bind us all. But as with Plath's poem, most family reunions are full of difficult, nuanced emotions. And some are just farcical and funny. Time for a song example? Here's a witty take, packed with beautiful detail by the Weimar-style cabaret singer Dusty Limits (previously highlighted on Song of the Day) very much in the fine traditions of Harry Warren, Al Dubin and Noel Coward:
As well as lovers reuniting, for better or worse (usually for worse) one of the biggest forms of reunions in music are those composed, commercially and emotionally, by the circumstances of bands reforming. As with many things in life, these things rarely work out, and as Karl Marx put it: "History repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce." And many have tried it. In fact, in the noughties, there was a whole, rather cheesy VH-1 TV programme devoted to it, with cringeworthy scenes involving Haircut One Hundred, ABC, A Flock of Seagulls, Kajagoogoo, Vixen, Berlin and Frankie Goes to Hollywood. I know you need the money, but guys, just don't.
So much is said about bands reforming and this proving true, from the Beatles to the Smiths. The idea is mainly owned by PR people and record companies. "As far as I'm concerned, there won't be a Beatles reunion as long as John Lennon remains dead," said George Harrison. Quite. "Without a reunion, the Eagles are forever young, like James Dean," said Glenn Frey. Is he also trying to say they're like Bob Dylan who reformed with The Band for Forever Young?
Do they always mean it? ”There's no tour plans, no reunion, no new album... nothing," said Dee Snider, frontman of Twisted Sister. Are you sure, Dee? "As for Guns N' Roses, I don't think there's ever a chance of a reunion," said Slash. But are you really sure, Slash? You know what happened next. "Maybe one day I can have a reunion with myself," says Sebastian Bach, not the great classical composer, but Canada's frontman of metal band Skid Row, not wanting to miss out on the action here. You do that, Seb, whatever that involves …
But sometimes getting the band back together can be successful. That's when there's a very entertaining John Landis film on offer, and there are great real-life musicians involved such a Steve "the Colonel" Cropper – lead guitar, rhythm guitar and vocals, Donald "Duck" Dunn on bass, Murphy Dunne on keyboards, Willie "Too Big" Hall on drums and Tom "Bones" Malone on trombone and tenor sax. Not to mention, alongside John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd's enthusiasm, guests ranging from Aretha Franklin to Ray Charles, Cab Calloway to James Brown. A Blues Brothers film song also made it to the top of chosen playlists last year on the topic of collaborations and side projects.
High-school reunions are also a very common, and potent source of teenage-angst and lust-driven material for songs and more. Usually though, it is a fraught, and competitive experience, isn't it? And for some it's too late. Clint Eastwood has now popped into the bar to have his say: "Let's put it this way: there wouldn't be much point in me attending a high-school reunion now because there wouldn't be anybody there. We'd struggle to raise a quorum." Remember the website Friends Reunited, anyone? Did it go well? Does anyone visit it anymore? Is it now a form of internet graveyard, like MySpace?
But some high school as well as band reunions can be fun. I am a shameless fan of the Richard Linklater film School of Rock. If you're familiar with it, you might enjoy this footage of 10 years later, when the cast have all grown up, or as in Jack Black's case, older and fatter, but still charismatic and funny. But the joy and enthusiasm of the original film, and the spirit of playing in a rock band remains:
And then there are strange reunions. Paul Simon sang a famous song that sounds family based, but here is the origin: "I was eating in a Chinese restaurant downtown. There was a dish called Mother and Child Reunion. It's chicken and eggs. And I said, I gotta use that one."
But for me, one of the most wonderful reunions unites humans and animals. In the swinging scenes of London in 1969, dandily dressed Australian friends John Rendall and Anthony "Ace" Bourke moved to the UK capital, and in a moment of affectionate madness, bought a lion cub from Harrods department store, when that sort of thing was still legal. The cat, they named Christian, grew to be a lovable pet, exercised in first in the basement of the shop where they worked and also in a cemetery churchyard. Around fashionable London, Christian could be seen sitting in their open top car or van wherever they went.
But he grew too big, of course, and fortunately they were good, sensible owners, deciding he it was best for him not to go to a zoo, and be confined, but reintroduced to the African wild with the help conservationist George Adamson. It's hard to find footage that isn't wrapped up in cheesy music (Whitney Houston etc), so it's really worth watching the full documentary. The key moment is when, after a year in the wilderness (this happened twice), they go back to visit him, and in that moment, we don't know if he will ignore them and not recognise them, or, as he does, smell the air, hesitate, then suddenly gallop down towards them. What will happen next? I dare you to not feel moved.
And so then, please place your own suggestions of reunion-based songs in comments below. And with a fierce embrace, and a roar, we heartily welcome back into the guru pack, our own very voracious but musically refined regular, Ravi, who will no doubt be ravenous for your marvellous musical suggestions. Deadline is this Monday 11pm UK time, for playlists published Wednesday. It's a pleasure, as always, to reunite with you all again with every new topic.
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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.