By The Landlord
"If you record the sound of bacon in a frying pan and play it back, it sounds like the pops and cracks on an old 33 1/3 recording. Almost exactly like that. You could substitute it for that sound." - Tom Waits
"My life’s so common it disappears, and sometimes even music cannot substitute for tears.” – Paul Simon
"I reject your reality and substitute my own." – Adam Savage
"The ability to quote is a serviceable substitute for wit." – Somerset Maugham
I really wanted that Chopper bike for Christmas. I got a Raleigh Grifter instead. Aged seven, I thought it was a poor substitute. But when the Chopper I craved, like the one belonging to my friend Darren down the street, suddenly broke, the plastic-handle gear-shifter snapping and jamming, I realised that my substitute was, in fact, although not as cool, better in some ways, and really I was lucky to have a bike at all. But it doesn’t always work out. When I was eight, I yearned for some skin-tight Levis or Brutus jeans, but my mum got me some sort of flared blue trousers from the Co-op. So embarrassing. "You'll grow into them and they're much more hardwearing," she explained, but I was having none of it. Still, she meant will, and she was a nice mum, and I wouldn't have substituted her for anyone. And you can't substitute people for possessions.
Yet every facet of our lives are filled with substitutes – plans, people, food, products, work, and perhaps everything that happens to us is a replacement for something that might have originally, or preferably, been there in its place. Arguably, in the random nature of life and reproduction, chance and design, we're all substitutes for someone else who could, or should, have come along instead. Partners might have met someone else, bands could have had different members, and a whole concertina of entirely different lives stretches out in an alternative, substitute universe. It's just as John Lennon says: "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."
And with that, this week's song topic is all about substitutes and substitutions of all kinds. But more than that, when your song nominations are compiled and distilled, this week's guest playlister, Marconius, has a plan. He's going to substitute himself for you when it comes to the write-up to accompany this topic. How? When you nominate a song, please write a phrase or sentence about it, or say anything about the whole topic of substitutes, and he will thread together and substitute his words for yours to create a write-up. More on that below.
But first, more about substitutes that happen on purpose. Are they meant to be like-for-like replacements or alternatives, meant to be just as good, different, better or, in some contexts slightly inferior to the original? The very word substitute, whether as noun or verb, refers to a person or thing acting or serving in place of another, yet suggests in its etymology, something below, or inferior to the original, and the term can even be derogatory, but that sometimes says more about the replaced than the substitute.
When, for example, a footballer comes on to replace another, his fresher legs and talent might mean he outshines the one going off, or add something new. Often this is welcome, but in other contexts, such as world of work, conventionally, for example, a substitute teacher is the one mocked and messed around with by students, But watch out kids! You never know who, or what you're dealing with:
"There is no substitute for hard work," said the very bright spark, and workaholic, Thomas A Edison. But in the wider, more everyday culture of work, a freelance fill-in is not supposed to be quite as good as the one they have replaced. That's where the self-employed person has to play a difficult game. I've been there too many times. The trick is – to be good enough for them to want you back, but not too good. Don't outshine the one you're replacing or show them up, or you'll not get a call again. Such is the farcical game of jobs, in which while some labour very hard indeed, others employ the game of charades, of appearances.
And within that world, not even with people, substitutions for work occur constantly. Emails are sent, meetings attended, and spreadsheets and presentations are created and shared, not for the sake of actually achieving anything, but to appear so. It is meta-work, substituted for actual work, as a replacement for actually getting things done. Paypal billionaire and space transport investor Elon Musk observes that: "The problem is that at a lot of big companies, process becomes a substitute for thinking. You're encouraged to behave like a little gear in a complex machine. Frankly, it allows you to keep people who aren't that smart, who aren't that creative." That's very true Elon, but most people aren't like you. They are just trying to hold on to their jobs. and as cogs in that machine feel like they must copy each other, often working hard at appearing to work hard. If that's a window on the world of work, the flat glass British inventor and manufacturing pioneer Alaister PIlkington put it this way: “Furious activity is no substitute for analytical thought.”
And now, if you look through our window, as usual, the Bar is crowded with other punters eager to talk about substitutes, poor or otherwise. Are they the real thing or even better than the real thing? One thing is for sure, the variety of these people, transcending time, culture and profession reveals just how much the fabric of our lives is interwoven with substitutes, or the idea of them. And over-riding theme is that substitutes are often poor replacements for something else. But what is going on in their heads?
The Greek storyteller Aesop orders a flagon of wine. “Outside show is a poor substitute for inner worth,” he intones. Everyone at least shows interest in this, at least on the outside. ”Indeed,” says Carl Jung, stroking his beard, “But here’s my position. Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering."
"Perhaps that's because sex is the ersatz or substitute religion of the 20th century," says journalist antagonist Malcolm Muggeridge, scattering the discussion into many direction.
"Oh shut, up you old misery guts, and stop trying to be clever," says the playwright Christopher Hampton. "I have always thought of sophistication as rather a feeble substitute for decadence."
Opinions substitute other opinions at every turn. And it seems substitutions are a really potent topic for how people behave towards each other. In fact it seems that instead of being irregular, substitutes are the norm, often replacing higher ideals. In another corner Saint Augustine announces: "Charity is no substitute for justice withheld." "Maybe so, Rush Limbaugh replies: "Yes, but compassion is no substitute for justice."
"Gentlemen," says Mary Wollstonecraft. "Let's look at this another way. Are we friends or enemies. Either way, fondness is a poor substitute for friendship."
"But, my dear”, intervenes Iris Murdoch, “There is no substitute for the comfort supplied by the utterly taken-for-granted relationship.”
That’s certainly opened a can of worms, and for some, pages in many books. But are books the answer? “Books are good enough in their own way, but they are a poor substitute for life,” says Robert Louis Stevenson, rather surprisingly. “Yes, says Anthony Burgess, “but he possession of a book often becomes a substitute for reading it.” Looking at some of the many on my shelves, I have to plead guilty sometimes on that count.
In many ways technology has become a substitute for human beings. How long before that moment when it takes over - the singularity? Candice Bergen uses a less sophisticated form of data storage. “I admit that Post-it note sheets that adhere to virtually any surface are now my substitute of choice for retention.”
“A computer does not substitute for judgment any more than a pencil substitutes for literacy. But writing without a pencil is no particular advantage,” says Robert McNamara. But Charles Dickens has now strolled into the Bar, and for a man of his time, could this remark foretell what is now our reliance on the internet, rather than talking to each other? “Electric communication will never be a substitute for the face of someone who with their soul encourages another person to be brave and true.”
“But,” says the painter Paul Cezanne, “one does not substitute oneself for the past, one merely adds to it a new link.”
We have plenty of new links in these parts, and writing. As some of your phrases will be used in the playlist write-up, Mark Twain is eager to give us some advice on how to use substitutions to improve writing style. “Substitute 'damn' every time you're inclined to write 'very'; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” What do you reckon, Marco?
Janet Fitch has this idea: “A terrific exercise is to take a paragraph of someone's writing who has a really strong style, and using their structure, substitute your own words for theirs, and see how they achieved their effects.”
A couple of thespians are now here, explaining how their profession is “a bit of a substitute for life,” says Nick Nolte, jumping in an explaining exactly what I was going to say for a second. “Excuse me. Just one more thing, says Peter Falk (aka Columbo). How did he end up being an actor? “Sometimes I was in school plays, but only when the kid they'd originally picked got sick and they asked me to substitute.”
The world of acting is all about substitutes, but how many films, plays and TV shows could have been played by others? The list is infinite, with many prominent parts turned down by actors for various reasons. Ray Liotta was originally lined up for the main part of Tony in The Sopranos (following in the path of Goodfellas), but he decided to concentrate on films instead, otherwise it would never have been the great James Gandolfini. Imagine that? Liam Neeson turned down the part of Abraham Lincoln, eventually earning Daniel-Day Lewis an Oscar instead. Brad Pitt is lauded for his role as Tyler Durdan in Fight Club, but it could easily have been Sean Penn. Will Smith turned down the Neo role in The Matrix, and it went instead Keanu “I know kung-fu” Reeves. Leonardo DiCaprio played Jack in Titanic, but Matthew McConaughey and Macaulay Culkin almost got it. Tom Hanks played Forrest Gump, but only because John Travolta turned it down! A smooth-moving Gump? I think not. And Harrison Ford only became Han Solo in Star Wars because Al Pacino said no. Imagine that. “Hoo! Haa! Chewey!”
From films then, now to food. First the healthy kind, with advice by our visiting chef Yotam Ottolenghi who tells us that:
- Swiss chard is undervalued in Britain. It's a great substitute for spinach and keeps its shape well.
- Plums are a good substitute for gooseberries.
- Agave nectar is a good substitute for refined sugars. It has a relatively low glycaemic index, which means it doesn't cause quick rises in blood sugar levels. It also has a nice, mild flavour.
- Salbitxada is a sharp and lightly sweet Catalan sauce that's traditionally served with calcots - spring or salad onions, grilled whole, make a good substitute.
Unfortunately we don’t all have time for such select choices. What we hurriedly eat is full of dubious substitutions, from preservatives to artificial sweeteners, a suite of chemical products that resemble food in mass-market cost-cutting. One thing is for sure, whether it’s the real thing or false, the result may well be the same:
Not sure whether it’s butter? Perhaps you want something healthier? Then again, maybe not:
Some people describe good food as as substitute for sex. But if you’re really unlucky, you might end up with this:
And there’s also a variety of other products that are substitutes for any variety of worldly pleasures, but without going into those, there’s always a danger of being short-changed with this:
For the past three weeks I’ve been trying to avoid the World Cup, but there’s no escaping it. Look up the word substitute, and you’re most likely to find it in the context of football, the subs who come on and score spectacular, result-changing goals, such as those by Henrik Larsson, David Fairclough or Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Sport is all about substitutions, from pinch-hitters in baseball who replace another batter for the rest the game, as in football, unlike in American football, or ice hockey, where the replaced can come back. But is sport itself a replacement for something else? Tribalism, war, a sense of identity? Eric Hoffer says that: “Nationalist pride, like other variants of pride, can be a substitute for self-respect.” But let’s not let that spoil our enjoyment.
Like many young kids, I wanted to be a footballer, but my time came and went. In fact I didn’t really get an opportunity at all, but if I had, I’d very likely have never have made it. But many people feel they could, and their lives turn out to be substitutes for the ones they yearn for. They are like Marlon Brando in On The Waterfront:
And so to close, here are two heartrending songs, relevant for this topic, but chosen for others, in which the singers feel like they have been romantically substituted. Yvonne Fair, and Patsy Cline, you may have been rejected by some, but you are been loved by others:
And so I now leave the field, to be substituted by your superior selves, and then Marconius, who first has this to add to his idea for this topic:
Remember the old campfire game where one person would start to tell a story, then the next person would continue, adding details and new plot elements, and so on until the last person would wrap up the story with a conclusion? Well I thought it would be interesting to do a column as guru for the Song Bar where I would write the first paragraph and the last and the song nominators would write the details for the songs they nominated. In other words, I would substitute your words for my own. I would be the facilitator and you would be the guru!
So what topic would lend itself to such an effort? Substitution, obviously! Whether it's ghost writing, pinch hitting or whatever, substitution plays a great role in society. Indeed, the competitiveness of the marketplace is based on the idea of getting consumers to substitute your product for the product they had been using. This leads to a constant striving for better products and better service. So what follows are your thoughts on substitution.
So then, deadline for substitution songs is Monday at 11pm UK time, for playlists published next Wednesday, by which time numbers will be (held) up.
One last thing: Here’s Paulo Coelho: “Be brave. Take risks. Nothing can substitute experience.”
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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.