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Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Is there life on Mars?

You've been living with something for yonks and then it suddenly strikes you. "That never registered before".

Nothing profound or profane, just the meaning of song lyrics. This is what happened.

In the early '70's I liked Elton John, I also liked The Carpenters, Dawn and T Rex (so blank me won't you). I liked Elton a lot, and not in that way. I'd bought a couple of his LPs and the single "Rocket Man". I think I remember the where and the when.

I was working for the London Borough of Islington off the Holloway Road. On the way from work, it was a sunny day I recall, I popped into Woolworth and I heard this song. It turned out to be "Rocket Man". I loved it, in the same way I loved "Ladytron" on first hearing about the same time.

Nearly 40 years on, is it that long ago! I'm watching a programme about Elton and in the background " And it's gonna be a long, long time 'til touchdown" is playing. And since then the song been going around in my head.

That's not strictly true. My version of that song is playing in mono in my head, but more of that later. It's just that in all the time I've known the song the line "I’m not the man they think I am at home", has never registered. Now, I don't want to make a big deal about what is a pretty average song, but that line just blows it apart.

What does his wife think he does "five days a week"? A van driver, record salesman, an astronaut? In 40 years that question never entered my thick bonce, until today.

And then I realised I don't listen to song lyrics. All these songs that are so much of my past, that stir memories of love, lust and loneliness I hear through "short sighted" ears. I dimly understand what the song's about and then switch off, and start composing alternative lyrics or just "de dum de dumming".

Which is strange as I was a great reader of LP sleeve covers in the days when they were full of lyrics which you could follow as you lowered the stylus onto that black track that wound its way to the centre. I must have re-read Dylan's and Cohen's lyrics a thousand times, but where have all the words gone long time passing?

My mental record collection is made up of "Hey Jude...da,da da, the world's a little colder"... "Let's spend the Night Together....da,da, da, da. "How does it feel to be on your own , a complete unknown."."Hey Mr Tambourine Man play a song for ..." "I see a rickshaw and I want to paint it black"! Yes really, it took me until about 1987 to discover he wanted to paint a door.

It's a bit better the earlier I go back. "Jennie come Lately", I know off by heart, if not her name. "Sheila" by Tommy Roe is there forever - not quite actually - singing it now I realise I know about 10% of the song. Mainly the bit that goes "Me and Sheila go for a drive, how, how, how I feel funny inside." That's about it.

Back further, I'm  word perfect. "Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, HD had a great fall.." "The Owl and the Pussy Cat went to Sea..." I'm like HAL in "2001".

So why don't I know any song all the way through? It could be that I'm suffering from dementia and losing my memory as well as marbles (where did I put my conkers?), but I don't think so. Is it because, only parts of songs (or melody) really resonate? The song was the sound track to a particularly important event - I remember the song in the round which frames that event, but it's specific phrases, verses, choruses or tunes which really capture how I felt at that moment.

So putting my theory to the test what is it about "Rocket Man", that sticks and why? At the time I was pretty unclear about what or who I was, pretty lost and in their way some of the lyrics were pretty pertinent.

Why did I blank out the import of  the line "I’m not the man they think I am at home"? Could it be that I felt I wasn't who I thought I wanted to be -nearly 40 years ago?

I wish I could speak to that 20 odd year old again.


Steve said...

Lyrics and music resonate with us at different times for different reasons. It's such a personal effect. Some albums, I know the lyrics inside out and 25 years I can recite them perfectly even though I haven't heard them in 25 years. Other songs that I listened to only last year have already left my sub conscious... is there rhyme and reason behind it? Who knows?

...louciao... said...

Painting the rickshaw black! That got a laugh out of me. But I never caught the line "I'm not the man they think I am at home" either. I always thought it was "I'm not the man they think I am at all." Which paints a rather broader swath (I see a broad swath and I want it painted black). He has everyone fooled, not just his housemates. "So who are you when you're at home?" was a popular bit of come-uppance for a time...maybe Elton (or wasn't Bernie the lyricist?) was inspired by this put-down phrase.

I heard Rocket Man for the first time on a jukebox in Granada (Spain) and was rather transported by it (pardon the pun). Maybe just a welcome break from all that sycnopated hand clapping flamenco music, I dunno.

Maybe it's a male thing, not really listening--just catching enough of what the song or wife is saying in order to nod your head in the right places.

Selina Kingston said...

Go on then! Write a letter to him...and then post it !

Marginalia said...

Dear Steve, 25 years ago. In 1986 I was mostly listening to "Walk this Way" - has it any lyrics?

Dear louciao, as an artist you would know about colour blindness - in my case it's a touch of the sound blindness. What we're you saying?

Dear Selina, I don't know his address, he moved a few years back.

Keith said...

Rehearing songs in the digital medium that I grew up with on LPs has also revealed stuff I never caught when it was just me and a fluff clogged needle.

Like the last, tiny, plaintive " Don't let go" on Kate Bush's Army Dreamers, which I didn't hear until I got her on my i-pod some 20 years after the event.

Marginalia said...

Dear Keith, it's been often said: the old songs don't sound as meaningful on a CD or when played digitally.

I still remember with great delight recording "Pick of the Pop" with a microphone on a Ferguson tape-recorder. Playing back Brian Hyland's "Ginny Come Lately" was magical.