Song Series #16: Songs as Experience

This is true about poems too, and other works of literature and art, but today I am focusing on songs. Songs do not give us direct messages about how to live. Or sometimes they do, but those are not usually the best ones. Songs change us by being the experience itself: maybe reminding us of other things we have seen and lived, but also taking their place among them. I will give a few examples of this today.

The first is a song I have mentioned a few times before: Cz.K. Sebő’sLight as the Breeze,” from his 2018 EP The Fox, the Thirst and the Breeze. I return to it again and again, and to the whole EP. The song has to do with those moments, when you are getting over someone, when a lightness actually breaks through and you actually feel better and see the world differently. It doesn’t last long; you may go right back to longing for the person, or feeling bad about the situation. But it comes back. And with each return, it brings a brief illumination: you know a different way of living, feeling, and thinking, and you know that this is true. The song does this not only through the lyrics, but through the guitars (which feature Cappuccino Project as guest musician), the rhythms, the textures.

The song has an important role in my life. For a long time I was struggling to get over, or come to terms with, a particular relationship (not a romantic relationship, but a friendship of sorts, or what I hoped would be a friendship), and was discouraged to find the pain and regrets coming back again and again. But these light moments had started happening too, and when I first heard the song, I recognized a light moment like the ones I had already experienced, but new. And every time I listened to the song, it was another light moment, and they built and built and keep on doing so. The song does not describe an end state; none of Sebő’s songs do. As I hear them, they are all songs of seeking and changing. But that is part of why they move me and take up a place in my life.

Before I go on, here is a gorgeous recording of Sebő playing in concert in 2020 on the A38 Hajó. If you want a sense of his performances, this is a place to start. The first two songs are wordless, with guitar only, and from then on he sings.

The next song I want to bring up is “Előszoba” by Kolibri (the stage/project name of Bandi Bognár), whom I got to hear at the KOBUCI last Wednesday, and whom I will hear again at the Kolorádó Fesztivál. It might be my favorite of his songs so far. It describes a quiet evening, when he is all alone in the living room, no one is around, there are dirty dishes in the sink, but only he could have left them there; there is mess in general, everything has fallen down. But it is beautiful:

Nem magány, de nagyon szép
Hogy csendéletté válik a hétköznapi lét
A hétköznapi lét
Sárga fény az előszobámban ég
Olyan szép
Olyan szép

A rough translation:

(It isn’t loneliness, but it’s beautiful
That weekday existence becomes a still life
weekday existence
A yellow light burns in my foyer
So lovely
So lovely)

It’s hard to translate, because “magány” means “solitude,” “loneliness,” “isolation,” which are different things. “Hétköznapi” means “weekday” or “ordinary.” The title word, “előszoba,” means “foyer,” “anteroom,” “antechamber”; it has a specific image in Hungary, where many apartments have them. But the meaning also lies in the melody, the pace, the rhythm, the repeated phrases, and the soaring voice. So here is the song.

In this case, the song not only describes but becomes an evening like many I have known over so many years. I listen to it and am there in the room, taking in this quiet time of evening or night, taking in the light and shadows, even the dishes I have left in the sink.

The next song is one of my favorites by Art of Flying, “What the Magpie Said,” from their album asifyouwerethesea. The lyrics are exceptional and should be read in full. Verses and chorus become one and the same, in a way; the actual chorus is this:

& all the horses of the moon
drag both night & day
& as the clouds of eyes awoke
I heard the magpie say:

but it goes right into what the magpie said, which has several variations. This one is the first:

that “everyone talks of love
ever since yr tale began
why can’t you face the fact
it’s never going to be perfect
little miracle little miracle
tell Annie to come over
I’m like…’the snow is falling
the beautiful is not forgotten.'”

I love how the real and the magical come together here: “Tell Annie to come over” and the colloquial “I’m like” come right from everyday life with all its imperfections, but there’s the falling snow, too. The song proceeds with its reflection and living of beauty and failure.


It is hard to explain what kind of experience this song is, but it is everything at once: “the horses of the moon” dragging “both night and day,” the pool of tears, the moment of telling someone to tell someone to come over to watch the snow, the heartbreak over the world. And it proceeds so slowly and subtly; the music lets you take it in syllable by syllable.

The next one, quite different in pace and mood, is “Ring My Bell,” from New Day With New Possibilities, the latest album by Sonny & the Sunsets (led by Sonny Smith, whose music I have loved for over two decades now, and many of whose stories I published in my erstwhile literary journal Señor). It’s a lighthearted song, but it has something to do with the contradiction of wanting to shut the world out and also hoping someone will just show up and ring the doorbell. That surprise and excitement of hearing the bell, that secret openness to new friendships and relationships. I listen to it and am right in it, hearing the doorbell ring. The video is delightful.

And now finally, a band I haven’t mentioned before except in passing, Galaxisok, whom I will get to hear at the KOBUCI this Saturday and then later this month at the Kolorádó Fesztivál, along with Kolibri, Platon Karataev, and others. Out of their most recent album Történetek mások életéből (Stories from the Lives of Others), there are many songs to choose, but this one, “Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble” (title in French, song in Hungarian), stands out because of the story it tells: of a person who loves music and loves to talk about it, loves film, loves to read, cracks jokes, doesn’t yell when he’s nervous but instead steps out for a cigarette—and one evening, before going to bed, tells his friend that he feels sometimes as though everything were dark inside him. I know that person (not literally, but through the song), I have been with that person, I have been that person too. The music has a bounce to it, with a mixture of electronic and acoustic sounds, but there’s a part that gets suddenly sparse. It’s a cheery-sounding song that brings a lump to my throat.

And that wraps up this installment of the Song Series. For other posts in this series, go here.

Update: Sonny & the Sunsets’ New Day With New Possibilities is Bandcamp’s Album of the Day!

Song Series #15: Doing Almost Nothing

Some of the most beautiful songs that I know work with silence and air. They seem to do almost nothing. Or maybe there’s a lot going on in them, but also a simplicity. I will bring up four such examples today.

Let’s begin with Jacques Brel’s “Départs,” one of his very early songs, recorded in 1953. The guitar has a simple chord progression and rhythm; for the most part (but not always), he strums on the beat, softly. But the little variations—of rhythm, stroke, volume—give the song a brooding texture. The lyrics are extraordinary on their own (about all the friendships that we abandon, all the good-byes we say, in our urge to travel the world in search of happiness), and the guitar gives them an extra tautness. (If you click on the picture, this will take you to the recording on YouTube.)

Toutes les amitiés
Qu’on laisse mourir
Qu’on laisse tomber
Pour aller courir
Sur de vains chemins
Cherchant pas à pas
Un bonheur humain
Qu’on ne connaît pas
Amitiés anciennes
Vieilles comme la vie
Idées faites siennes
Et que l’on renie
Visage sans nom
Prénom sans visage
Rires que nous perdons
Inutiles bagagesTous les “au revoir”
Qu’on lance à la ronde
Parce qu’on croit devoir
Parcourir le monde
Et tous les adieux
Aux filles donnés
C’est trop d’être d’eux
Allant guerroyer
Les bonheurs qu’on sème
A chaque départ
Meurent vite d’eux-mêmes
Sur les quais de gare
Tous les “au revoir”
Et tous les adieux
Nous rendent l’espoir
Nous rendent plus vieux

The next song is “Csak mi” by Lázár tesók (the Lázár brothers), whom I had the joy of hearing in concert a week ago. This song (about a relationship that can see in the dark, that becomes luminous in the dark) keeps playing and playing in my head and in my headphones; it’s the first song on their album Hullámtörés. In different hands, and with different lyrics, the vocal melody could have led to something cheesy. But they make it unique with the syncopated guitar and the beautiful repetitions of piano phrases and notes. It’s that repeated note on the piano toward the end that gets me; it’s like seeing in the dark itself. I think it’s possible to appreciate this song without knowing Hungarian, but here’s a rough translation of the lyrics:

A storm is stirring, light doesn’t come in
Everything in the window is already dark
Only you, only you can see (me) as such
This is me, I emerged just now.

When everything is invisible, that’s when I live
When everything goes dark, I shine

The edge of the setting sun is dark red
It floods the evening, but comes to an end
Only you, only you keep vigil at night
And that is the time when I emerge

When everything is invisible, that’s when we live
When everything goes dark, we shine
When everything is invisible, just then we appear
Just you, just I, just we have remained

The next song is “Psalmus” by Platon Karataev, whom I will hear next week at the Mini Fishing on Orfű festival! I am going just for Thursday night: bringing my bike (and tent and sleeping bag) on the train to Pécs, and biking from Pécs to Orfű. And then head back early in the morning. This will be the first time I hear the full band in concert; I heard Sebő and Gergő in an acoustic duo last August, and I heard Sebő play a solo concert just recently. I love this song for its long layers, among other things. First there’s bass alone. Then Gergő’s guitar comes in, and then, at the instant that he begins to sing, the drums come in too. Then Sebő’s quiet backing vocals. The whole band holds back so much in this song, it builds up so slowly, and its confession or offering is so bare. (You can read the lyrics here.) The Live at Gólya video is especially beautiful, because it lets you see some of what is going on musically. The song is from their second full-length album, Atoms.

I will end with Dávid Szesztay’s “Hullámzás,” which has also been playing in my head this week. It was beautiful at the concert on Wednesday and has become one of my favorite songs on the new album. The colorful chords and arpeggios combine with the simple vocal melody and the repeated words, like “elaludtál” (you have fallen asleep) and “ideúsztál” (you swam over here), and the single repeating note in the background. I won’t translate it here, since it would be hard to do correctly. The song seems to have to do with spending time with a person, morning and night, traveling together, waking almost together. Sometimes I think it’s a little bit about death, but then, everything is, in some way.

Oh, heck, here’s one more, because it has been one of my favorite songs over many years: “Strip Darts” by Hannah Marcus, from her 2003 album Desert Farmers. (“Strip Darts” is actually the correct spelling, even though it appears online as “Stripdarts.”) For this I have to use Spotify, because the song isn’t available on YouTube or Bandcamp. Listen to its story, its incantations, and the way it goes on without words. Even within the words, there is so much unsaid; you sense a person going through a private crisis, and someone else watching from the outside, with wry compassion. There is hope in this song. “But just when you think your love’s in vain / Look out here comes the desert rain / Look out here it comes.” And yes, there is the rain, in the music, and what a rain.

My descriptions here have been rather sparse, but that’s in the spirit of doing almost nothing. These songs have a way of coming back again and again.

Song Series #14: One Morning in May

This morning I had the joy of listening to songs with my ninth-grade students, as part of the music unit in the American Civilization course. A few weeks ago, while we were still online, I had introduced them to U.S. American and Canadian songs and pieces from various genres: jazz, blues, folk, country. They then had to choose one of the songs from the playlist and write a reflection on it. From their reflections and songs, I chose five, and added one more (which isn’t American but which is clearly influenced by these traditions, particularly folk): Platon Karataev’s “Orange Nights.” So here was what we listened to, in person, this morning in May.

First was the remastered version of Freddie Hubbard’s “Mirrors,” which an eleventh-grade student had strongly recommended to me. I listened to it and understood why he thought I should hear it. A person could listen to this piece alone and fall in love with jazz. One ninth-grader wrote, “In the first second when I heard the jazzy piano, I knew
that this song was going to be good. The wind instruments are played like they are the singers I’m a fan of. It is really calm and smooth.” Another mentioned that he might include a sample from this piece in one of his own musical projects.


The next one was Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne,” which I have brought up on this blog before. While Cohen was Jewish and observant, as well as being involved with Buddhism, the verse that describes Jesus is heartbreaking. That is part of the song’s opennness; Suzanne in the song carries the spirit of openness, the ability to feel with the world and to love with a purity that sweeps up everything.

And Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him
He said all men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them
But he himself was broken, long before the sky would open
Forsaken, almost human, he sank beneath your wisdom like a stone

And you want to travel with him, and you want to travel blind
And then you think maybe you’ll trust him
For he’s touched your perfect body with his mind

The next was “Little Red Rooster” by the great blues musician Howlin’ Wolf. A student found it intriguing because nowadays teens don’t listen to this kind of music. “I noticed his beautiul energetic voice,” he wrote, “which is incredible.” He gave some brief background on Howlin’ Wolf (Chester Arthur Burnett), his teenage life on a cotton plantation, and his musical evolution.

The next one was Sarah Jarosz’s “Song Up In Her Head,” this version recorded during the Music Fog sessions at the 2010 Americana Music Festival in Nashville, Tennessee. The students who had written about this song had been taken by her voice and the way the song gets you to sing along. “I personally think that the lyrics are catchy,” one wrote; “they are easy to memorize. After listening to the song two or three times, you can already sing along easily. There aren’t many too high or too low notes, because the focus is more on the instruments, as the genre is bluegrass.”

From there, we moved along to Bob Dylan’s “Simple Twist of Fate,” which had appealed to several of the students. The song has layers and layers of memories for me. I love the languourous mood, the characteristic soaring of the voice, and the way the song tells a story and then, in the last verse, moves into the first person.

People tell me it’s a sin
To know and feel too much within
I still believe she was my twin
But I lost the ring
She was born in spring
But I was born too late
Blame it on a simple twist of fate

To wrap it all up, we listened to Platon Karataev’s “Orange Nights,” which they hadn’t heard before. I chose it because it is gorgeous and because it fit so well with the rest; also, because they could hear how a Hungarian band draws on U.S. folk traditions in a genuine and original way. The music wraps you up and carries you along; you can hear and see the orange nights in Pest. The lyrics are full of textures and meanings. One of my favorite aspects is the rhyme of “Pest” (“pesht”) with “detest,” “rest,” “best,” and “chest”; another is the pair of lines “Solitude, you’re with me in the end / We salute as old friends,” with “salute” pronounced with a stress on the first syllable, so that it sounds very close to “solitude” and brings out this beautiful paradox of solitude and greeting. No native English speaker would come up with this, and it’s perfect; the song, after you listen to it a few times, starts playing in the mind and limbs.

What a happy lesson, and a rare treat at school: to be able to listen to songs like this, one after another. The students were tranquil and thoughtful, and several commented at the end that they had enjoyed this. One of them doesn’t like slow songs, so it wasn’t quite as enjoyable for her; but others were strongly enthusiastic (one especially loved “Orange Nights”), and in any case, this is an opening into more: for instance, the full albums, or these same songs again, or something else. Who knows where listening will lead?

To see all the posts in the Song Series, go here.

Song Series #13: “A soft spot for repetition”

At the ALSCW Zoom event in which I interviewed Zsolt and Marcell Bajnai and they gave a performance, I asked Marcell about the repetitions and subtle variations in his songs. He began by saying that repetition is part of the foundation of songs. His comment, and Kurt Vile’s song “One Trick Ponies,” which has the line “cuz i’ve always had a soft spot for repetition,” brought out thoughts for this piece.

It is difficult to think of a song that does not involve repetition of some kind. There are repetition of melody, rhythm, refrain. There are repetitions of phrases within a verse, of words within a line. There are repetitions of syntax, musical phrases, chords, syllables, single consonants or vowels, guttural sounds. Why is repetition, when done well, essential to a song?

Some of it goes to our childhood. Remember how babies love to play the same games over and over, hear the same stories over and over, sing the same songs again and again? You see them anticipate the next word, the next peak. The fun lies in the anticipation of that known and beloved moment. Adults know that kind of anticipation too. That’s partly why I love to return to favorite songs, poems, stories; I can’t wait to hear that phrase, to see that turn of words again.

Also, repetition allows us to take the songs into ourselves. Within a short while, we know them well enough to sing at least part of them to ourselves. Soon afterward, we know the whole thing, and after that, we have room to hear more details and to imagine the song being played in different ways. They become part of our waking and walking. There’s discovery too: the repetition allows us to hear the changes and variations, which would not stand out if the song as a whole were changing all the time.

I will begin with a classic form of repetition in a song: the verse/refrain structure, where the refrain repeats more or less exactly, and the verses change. (There are many songs where the refrain changes, where the verse contains repetitions, or where verse and refrain cannot be separated, but let’s start here.) The Velvet Underground’s song “Pale Blue Eyes” not only keeps to this structure but does something extraordinary with it. This slow, gentle song carries you along, verse through verse, refrain after refrain, building a story of forbidden love. You don’t realize the heartbreak until you’re right in the middle of it.

The refrain seems simple: “Linger on your pale blue eyes.” But what does it mean, even grammatically? Is someone lingering on the pale blue eyes, or are the pale blue eyes lingering on (enduring)? Is it a command, a yearning, or a statement? The phrase seems to float, like a subjunctive wish, sometimes coming closer to the present, sometimes receding away. Lou Reed’s voice cracks on the “on” itself, the word that is drawn out the longest.

The guitars, bass, tambourine, Hammond organ, and voice carry the song in such an understated way that you hardly notice the sound growing fuller. There are no dramatic shifts, just a sound and a story wrapping around you.

The second song I am including here, Péter Jakab’s “Te vagy az ellenség bennem” (“You are the enemy inside me”) has a different kind of repetition entirely: the repetition, over and over, of that single title sentence. I know nothing about Péter Jakab except that he is the frontman of Jazzékiel, that he released his first solo album, Nem fontos személy, in February 2021, and that Norbert Kristóf (who, along with Szabolcs Puha, recorded Cz.K. Sebő’s EP Junction) released a remix of this particular song. This kind of repetition is millennia old, part of prayer and incantation. Just as when you say a word many times in succession, it starts to sound strange or holy, so when you do this in a song, you become more detached from the words, and at the same time more involved in them. They take on a meaning of their own, apart from where they started out. This song is wonderfully surprising and haunting.

The next song, Leonard Cohen’s “The Partisan,” has yet a different kind of repetition: that of syntactic rhythm. I learned just recently, when listening to Jeffrey Davison’s Shrunken Planet program on WFMU, that Cohen didn’t actually write this song. (I should have realized this long ago; I have had the album Songs from a Room for many years, and it was one of the handful that I brought it to Hungary.) The song was originally written by Anna Marly during World War II. It is not clear to me whether she wrote the original lyrics herself, in Russian, or whether the lyrics were originally written by Emmanuel d’Astier, but the music was Marly’s, and the song became an anthem of the French Resistance. In the 1960s, Hy Zaret adapted it and translated it into English (changing some of the words and meanings). Leonard Cohen’s version is based on Zaret’s—but he simplifies the texture and adds a few verses of the French lyrics to it. If you listen to Marly’s, Zaret’s, and Cohen’s versions, you can hear how Cohen draws from both of his predecessors but gives the new version a soul of its own. (That’s another kind of repetition right there.)

The syntactic repetition is this: in each of the verses, the first three lines constitute an idea, and then the fourth line responds to it somehow. In Hebrew cantillation, there would be an etnachta trop, a melodic phrase indicating a semicolon-like caesura, between the third and fourth lines. Here you can hear it in the vocal pause, the stretch of rumbling guitar, between the last word of the third line and the first word of the fourth.

When they poured across the border
I was cautioned to surrender
This I could not do
I took my gun and vanished.

I have changed my name so often
I’ve lost my wife and children
But I have many friends
And some of them are with me

And so on, up to these aching words:

Oh, the wind, the wind is blowing
Through the graves the wind is blowing
Freedom soon will come
Then we’ll come from the shadows

There’s also repetition through the translation itself, or the almost-translation; when the French verses come along, they seem like a distant memory, with the backing vocals and the feeling of wind. And just like memory and wind, the “wind” verse comes back in English at the end, and within it, the repetition of “wind” and “blowing.”

Speaking of translation, this past Sunday was Poetry Day in Hungary, and I had the occasion to think about how poems get translated into song. This often involves a kind of repetition: the songwriter might repeat words and lines that occur just once in the original poem, and may rearrange them somewhat too. This repetition and rearrangement in music gives something new to the meaning. One example of this is Marcell Bajnai’s reworking in song, released on Sunday, of Krisztián Peer’s poem “Félteni magadtól” (“Fearing Yourself”). It would be too complicated to explain and translate everything here, but I particularly like how he saves two lines until a little later in the song, and then again for the very end:

Minek simogatsz, amikor dicsekszem?
Szereted a vesztes ügyeket?

(Why do you caress me when I brag?
Do you love lost causes?)

This not only highlights the two lines, which have everything to do with the title, but also brings everything together. To me, it is supposed to be this way.

Cz.K. Sebő’s song “On a Fine Day,” whose lyrics are the János Pilinszky poem “Egy szép napon” in Géza Simon’s beautiful English translation, does something similar, though different, through repetition.

It’s the misplaced tin spoon,
the bric-a-brac of misery
I always looked for,
hoping that on a fine day
I will be overcome by crying,
and the old house, the rustle of ivy
will welcome me back.
Always, as always
I wished to be back.

After singing through the poem, the song returns to the four lines,

I will be overcome by crying,
and the old house, the rustle of ivy
will welcome me back.

That ends the song, so that those lines become the return itself: the return to the words becomes the return to the old house, and so I, the listener, have returned to the house without even realizing it.

This is just a dip into the topic of repetition in songs, which gave me a chance to bring up two old favorites, a recent favorite, and two that I heard for the first time this past week. I look forward to hearing them all many more times.

I corrected my translation of the Krisztián Peer lines on July 2.

To read the other pieces in the Song Series, go here.

Song Series #12: Songs with Animals

For some reason I started thinking about songs with animal references, of which there must be millions, and put together a playlist of eleven. Animals have a special relationship to songs for all sorts of reasons: music and animals move in a similar way, according to a particular kind of knowing; animals fill literary language; many of us feel, at times, that an animal is in our soul; animals have song and rhythm; an animal view allows us to see ourselves from a new angle; animal sorrow can be the profoundest sorrow of the world; animals need no reasons at all. It’s no coincidence, then, that some of my favorite songs have animals in them, and that their roles in the songs are about as different as can be. I have many to choose from but will discuss songs by Cz.K. Sebő (of Platon Karataev fame), Art of Flying (the focus of my next “Listen Up” piece), Robyn Hitchcock, Belle and Sebastian, and Marcell Bajnai/Idea.

I have already talked about Cz.K. Sebő’s “Hart” (from his Junction EP) in my most recent “Listen Up” piece, and I don’t want to overdo it. But there is one point I wanted to mention, regarding the way the hart comes up. When you listen to the song, it sounds as though he is singing, “I was hart and I remember the stars,” but then the printed lyrics say, “I was like a hart, and I remember the stars.” The sung version is perfect to me (or at least with an “a,” “I was a hart”). In spoken English we don’t usually say “I was cat,” or “I was bird”; if we say it at all, we say it with an article, e.g., “I was a cat.” But if you leave out the article, you are referring to the essence, the name. To say “I was hart” is unusual but poetically permissible (with a beautiful archaic sound); it means something like, “I was a hart in my essence.” But it could be hard to understand, since it’s odd to the ear, so “I was a hart” is probably best. This isn’t a matter just of “using” a metaphor, but rather of being one. It is one of my favorite moments in the song, because it brings up something that I understand but cannot explain. The second part of that sentence, too: “and I remember the stars”: how being hart becomes not only a memory, but a way of seeing the world, at least for a speck of time.

For the Art of Flying song, it’s difficult to choose between “Armadillo” and “The Jaguar Song.” I’ll choose the former (from their album An Eye Full of Lamp), because the latter will come up in the “Listen Up” piece. “Armadillo” is one of my favorite Art of Flying songs; haunting, mysterious, moving, and untranslatable. I don’t know what it means rationally, but in a different way I understand it well. I had the joy of playing it with Anne Speroni (one of the Art of Flying duo) when visiting in Taos for the music festival they held for many years. I accompanied her on cello for a few songs–something I would only have dreamed of. Being inside the song, part of its sound, comes back vividly when I think of it years later. I won’t type out the lyrics here (for fear of getting them wrong), except for the chorus, “this is where we didn’t go, following the armadillo.” I think the song has something to do with taking a different path from others in life, and reflecting on what that other way might have been, “following the armadillo.” But the song makes no direct statements about this; instead, it paints the difference through the music. The armadillo itself feels ominous: separated from the singer through time and habit, but a danger for anyone. Yet that’s just one way of hearing the song.

The next one is Robyn Hitchcock’s “Lizard.” I am grateful to my friend Tara for introducing me to his music, years ago. This is from his debut solo album Black Snake Dîamond Röle (1981); he has released about 20 more full-length albums since then (in addition to EPs and compilations) and, most recently, has been giving streamed concerts with Emma Swift during the pandemic. This song has a wonderful eerie bass line and lyrics that mention the lizard in almost every other line. Brilliant rhymes, brilliant stretching of this idea across the verses of the song. I don’t think it needs any explanation.

You wear the lizard’s shoes
And afterwards you get confused
You wear the lizard’s coat
And afterwards you fail to float
You take the lizard’s path
But look who’s lying in the bath
You wear the lizard’s skin
No man can be a god and win at all
Ahh

One song that I wanted badly to bring up here but am going to put off is Kurt Vile’s “One Trick Ponies,” because it has so much character and fun. It doesn’t really refer to ponies, though; “one-trick pony” is a common expression. I will save it for the next installment of this song series. It has the classic line “cuz I’ve always had a soft spot for repetition,” and the next piece in this series will focus on repetition itself.

So, let’s go on to Belle and Sebastian’s “The Fox in the Snow,” from their album If You’re Feeling Sinister. It has been covered by Grandaddy and many others; many treasure it as an anthem of suffering. But there’s a joy to it; it has to do with survival, but also that chance at survival, the chance that can be taken at any moment.

Fox in the snow, where do you go
To find something you could eat?
‘Cause the word out on the street is you are starving
Don’t let yourself grow hungry now
Don’t let yourself grow cold
Fox in the snow

In the next verses, instead of a fox, or along with the fox, it becomes a girl, a boy, a kid, and then that kid becomes all of us, “second just to being born, second to dying too, what else would you do?” There’s also a slightly bitter, but matter-of-fact “When your legs look black and blue” and “It’s not as if they’re paying you.” And the song dances and dances and ends on a graceful slowness.

The final song for this piece is specially chosen for today, since this evening (3 p.m. EDT, 8 p.m. CET), at an ALSCW Zoom event, I will be interviewing both the songwriter, Marcell Bajnai, and his father, Zsolt Bajnai, and after the interview, Zsolt will read some of his stories, and Marcell will play his own songs between them. Do come! The Zoom information is here.

I have written about this song before and covered it on cello. Marcell Bajnai has performed it both solo and with his band Idea (formerly 1LIFE); it’s the eighth song on the band’s debut album, Nincsen Kérdés. The song proceeds through a series of metaphor-pairs, of possibilities: “I could be” a boat, “you could be” the river, then cloud and rain, then forest and bird, and then fool and king. The bird comes up just once, in this little part, but it’s one of my favorite parts, musically and lyrically:

lehetnék erdő, te meg
lehetnél a madár
bújj el bennem, és ígérem
itt senki nem talál

I could be a forest, and you
you could be the bird
hide in me, and I promise
no one will find [you] here

It’s so fleeting and fragile, you sense that that’s part of the meaning of the whole song: that being human means having a life full of imperfections and mistakes; the song captures something universal in a humble and beautiful way.

That concludes the twelfth installment of the song series. For the full series, go here. Stay tuned for the next “Listen Up” piece, which will appear in the next few weeks. And we hope to see you tonight (or at whatever time of day it will be for you)!

I revised part of this piece long after posting it.

Song Series #11: Songs I Reach For, or Vice Versa

What does it mean to love a song? It’s something that comes over time, not usually at first listen. You reach back for the song, or it reaches for you. Something pulls it up and puts it on. The songs you “love” at first listen may stay with you a day, a month, a year, or many years, but you only find out over time.

The first is “Song for Iris” by Art of Flying, on their brilliant 2018 album, Escort Mission, the only vinyl album I have right now in Hungary. (I will eventually bring my records and CDs here and get a recordplayer too.) Here’s a gorgeous performance at the Taos Center for the Arts. You can read the lyrics on Bandcamp (where you can also purchase the album). I have often wished there were an Art of Flying songbook; their songs sound like they come through the ages, but they’re also right here, in our world. They could be sung in so many places and times, alone, with others, by the fire or on a long road. Here’s how “Song for Iris” begins:

I sing for the beautiful old singer
Voice rising higher than the moon
Who sings how trouble hangs around
& pleasure leaves too soon.

Ain’t it the beautifulest thing,
To be lost in the heat of love
I paint a river for your feet
Your blue-eyed sky above.

I can’t see your face at all, but
They say you’re everywhere.

Another song I reach for, again and again, over the years is “24” by Red House Painters. I say this reluctantly; I didn’t want to love this music, even back in the 90s, but forget it, it does its own work. This is from their 1992 album Down Colorful Hill. The lyrics begin:

So it’s not loaded stadiums or ballparks
And we’re not kids on swingsets on the blacktop
And I thought at fifteen that I’d have it down by sixteen
And twenty-four keeps breathing in my face

But it’s the guitar I especially love, its slow descent, the way it lets the voice swing slowly on it.

Another that comes back again and again is “Oh, My Girl” by Jesse Sykes & the Sweet Hereafter. I don’t know what the song is about, but I dance in it. The way her voice goes up on “Girl,” the way the voice, lead guitar, and viola talk to each other, the way the song paints a room with afternoon light, all of this is what I can name, but like any beautiful song, it goes from there into its own language.

There are so many more to bring up here–but one that has been in my ears is “Part of Joy” by Grandfaloon Bus, one of the hardest songs of theirs to describe, but one that goes far beyond whatever you hear in it the first time around. I wrote about it some years ago; somewhere, on an old computer, my thoughts are stored, I think. But I love how it leads, part by part, to its ending, “Here’s the last words that were said before the line went dead, before failure went to your head and so you lie instead of admitting you’d sing for your supper too.” That “sing” sounds sad and exuberant at the same time, and then the instruments take over. It’s one of my favorites on the album and in the Granfaloon Bus repertoire–though if “Say Cheese,” “Free Gold Halo,” “Sugar Museum,” and others were online too, I would have had a hard time choosing one.

I love songs somewhat in the same way I love stories–for their taut form, their imagination, their possibilities inside the brevity, and their way of calling you up out of nowhere. These are just a few.

To read my other posts in the Song Series, go here.

Song Series #10: Song Endings

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One of the most important parts of a song is its ending. There are many ways to end a song, and the ending matters. It gives something to the song; it is also really hard to do well. Many artists rely on the fade-out, which is fine for some songs, but lazy as a general approach–unless you truly believe that your songs shouldn’t end. Today I am going to bring up a few favorite song endings–all from songs by California musicians (or musicians who lived at some point in California), since I am watching the news of the terrible wildfires and thinking of friends and others who are suffering right now. I made a token donation to the Wildfire Relief Fund, but I wish I could do much more.

One way to end a song is simply to stop, maybe with a few percussion beats at the end, maybe without. A brilliant example of this is “Borders” by Granfaloon Bus (from their album Good Funeral Weather), which has to do with the borders of many kinds–inside people, between people, and in time, in the course of life. The refrain has a beautiful cadence that alternates between the “you” and the “I”: “You’re payin’, while I run, you’re still crying, well I’m all done.” The song ends with “done” and a few quiet drumbeats that come to a stop.

You can hear a similar kind of ending in a very different kind of song: 20 Minute Loop’s brooding, increasingly frantic “Everybody Out,” where the repeating chorus or culmination is “If it don’t stop, if it don’t stop,” and then it just stops with that! This video is from a 2008 performance at Bottom of the Hill.

Another way of ending is by going into a new mode, often instrumental, that comes to its own conclusion. A favorite example is from one of my favorite songs, “Green Glass” by Carrie Bradley, performed and recorded by her band Ed’s Redeeming Qualities. Watch the whole video–it begins with a historic mishap where the one string on Dan’s butterfly bass breaks. The song is intense with words–they go fast and urgently, leaving you chasing after the strands as they fly by: “In the belly of a bar, on a back street, there’s a couple of people I’d tell you about if I weren’t in the habit of just thinking out loud…” Wow. That’s just the beginning. “Small bar, back street, mostly residential, nothing to worry about, nothing much to do. A blue neon sign in the window says Burgies on Beacon, and the street lights brood. The blue light features bugs, floating around, like craters, like something in your eye, like astronauts, like black holes, like black stars….” A man and a woman meet, and they get each other’s jokes, there’s something there, and eventually the woman says, “Isn’t there something between talk and sex, is there a place between obsession and apathy?” and he says, “I know a place like that, it’s, uh, 216 Center Street, Apartment D12, it’s up to you,” and she says, “I’m talking about faith, I’m talking about beauty, I’m talking about green glass in a junkyard, I’m talking about faith, I’m talking about beauty, I’m talking about ordinary flies in a blue light,” and then the song lyrics end, “and he says, ‘I know that, it’s up to you,’ and he left.” So you have this moment where the thing that they both understand is hanging there in the air, about to happen, and the music takes it over.

Where even to go from here? How about Dieselhed’s silly, majestic, iconic “B A Band,” about how some day they won’t be a band? And indeed, they are no longer a band together; they long ago continued on to other musical projects. At the shows, the lighters came out for that song–they waved in the air, like the phone lights last night in Budapest when Idea played “Sötét van.” This song–which features Jonathan Segel on violin–combines two kinds of endings: the crescendo (a common and effective way of ending a song: building up to a wild intensity and then–in some cases, but not here–crashing into the final note) and the coda, which in this case goes forward in time: “Now I’m just sitting here on my barstool / bragging to the barman about a show we once had in Fort Bragg / if my stories seem a little bit thin / I’ve got something brewin’ deep within.”

I haven’t even gotten to other kinds of endings, like returns to the beginning, or switches to a cappella singing (as in Platon Karataev’s “Elevator“), but this sure was fun. I’ll leave off with “Elevator” itself. No explanation needed. If you have favorite song endings, or ways of ending a song, please mention them in the comments. And let us hope the fires end soon.

For earlier posts in the song series, go here.

Song Series #9: Breaking Through Time

queen

It is common, when listening to a song or album that you haven’t heard in a long time, to find that it brings back an era of your life, maybe an era of history. It can be fun to listen to old favorites for this reason. But there are songs that also transcend their era (or the era when we first listened to them) while also capturing something of it. Over time, they show their newness, which does not go away.

What do such songs have in common? They are bold and beautiful at once, and there’s nothing quite like them. The boldness may be quiet or brash, but you can feel it. It becomes part of you as you listen.

An obvious example is “We Will Rock You” by Queen. It appeared on their 1977 album News of the World. It needs no explanation. The foot stomping and the a cappella voices, the anger and the promise, the irresistible melody and beat–all of this made it a song that I heard again and again without even owning the album. I probably heard it in high school first, without knowing what it was. In college it got played at parties and dances. Bands covered it. People started singing it out of the blue. Many years later, in 2008, when I was teaching at an elementary school way out in East New York, Brooklyn, my students struck up their own version of it on the bus ride back from a field trip. I can still hear them singing the chorus (which consisted of the name of one of the students, who was the fifth grade class president, I think, and who was well liked and respected).

The next song, in a very different mood, is the Smiths’ “Half a Person.” Originally released in 1987 as the B-side of the single “Shoplifters of the World Unite,” it is also included on their compilation album Louder Than Bombs. I first heard it at the Daily Caffé in New Haven (where I heard a lot of music for the first time). I bought Louder Than Bombs and listened to it over and over–the song and the whole album. “Half a Person” is so beautifully melancholic and semi-young. It seems to be about a teenager’s confusion and wandering, but it feels older, probably because of the reminiscence in it. “Call me morbid, call me pale, I’ve spent six years on your trail, six long years on your trail….” It’s perverse and poignant at the same time. And even today, when the narrator of the song would be quickly written off as a stalker, the song gives a glimpse of the person’s soul and circumstances. “That’s the story of my life….”

Since I seem to be proceeding decade-wise, I’ll continue with Beck, whose genius I didn’t appreciate at first. When “Loser” was all over the place, and then when Odelay came out, there was so much talk about Beck that I couldn’t listen to him. Later, with his Mutations and Sea Change, I started to listen, and now I am listening to those albums I missed early on, as well as later ones. What is it about Beck? It isn’t just his versatility, his ability to take different directions in his music. It isn’t only his craft either, though he knows how to compose a song that you will want to ride all the way through, anticipating each shift and break. There’s more to it than that, something I want to get to know.

His song “Where It’s At” (from Odelay) was all around me for years before I knew that Beck wrote it.  I think it was on many an mp3 playlist at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater–it got played there in intermissions, dance parties, etc. But that’s not the song I want to include here. The song I have chosen is “Girl,” from his 2005 album Guero, because it so messed up and perfect at once. I love how the first “Hey” comes a split second after the “try” of “nothing that I wouldn’t try.” I love the attitude of the song–downcast, dorky, disturbing, mischievously wry, and, towards the end, celebratory. The video stands out too, with its series of fold-in scenes, a tribute to MAD Magazine.

The last one I’ll mention today is Sonny Smith, whom I first heard in San Francisco in 2000 (when he had been around for a few years, putting out tapes). During the break, I ran up to Carrie Bradley, who was headlining the show that night, and said, “Sonny Smith was fantastic!” She motioned to her left; Sonny was sitting next to her and I hadn’t even noticed. I was so flustered that I couldn’t say anything. Later we became good acquaintances; I edited some of his stories, many of which I published in my literary journal, Sí Señor; he played at two of the Sí Señor celebrations. Over the years I got to listen to his music as he formed Sonny and the Sunsets, toured the world, put out album after album, wrote a musical (The Dangerous Stranger), pulled off the 100 Records project, started a record label (Rocks in Your Head Records), and did so much more that I lost track. What Sonny has in common with Beck is a relentlessness, a desire to try new things, and a knack for a darn good song. What’s different is all the difference between them (a lot). It is difficult to choose a song to feature here. But I’ll choose “Pretend You Love me” from Sonny and the Sunsets’ 2012 album Longtime Companion. Why? Because it’s so sad, yet it lifts up as it goes–in a way that is not tied to time and place, even though it brings back various memories at once. (For contrast, and for another Sonny great, listen to “Well but Strangely Hung Man.”)

That will be all for this post, since I soon head into Budapest to hear a Platon Karataev acoustic duo!

This is the ninth post in my Song Series. For other posts in this series, go here.

Song Series #8: Different Exiles

 

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Exile: by its usual definition, the state of being banned from your own country. But exile can be internal too. Or even a fact of life, a condition of the things you need to do. Music demands a kind of exile; while it brings people together (intensely), it also demands truth, and truth gets you in trouble, whether obviously or not.

It’s a little more complicated than that. Musical truth is different from what we know as “telling the truth.” The stories in music don’t have to match point for point with the facts of your own life, but the shape will be true, the rhythm will be true, and the words will speak to you even if you don’t know what they mean. When this happens, you’re already cast out–in the best of ways, since exile can be joyous too–and you can’t take it back. You go about your life like everyone else, but as soon as a certain song starts playing in your head, you suddenly unbelong to your surroundings. The world will not bend to the music or vice versa.

Every good song, in that sense, is a song of exile. But a few stand out for me in this way. I’ll leave out the obvious exile ballads, such as Radiohead’s “Daydreaming,” Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty” or Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat.” They are among my favorite songs, but their place in the “exile canon” is already clear. Instead, I’ll include Nick Drake’s “River Man,” Ferron’s “Shadows on a Dime,” Dávid Szesztay’s “2120,” Joni Mitchell’s “Hejira,” and Sonic Youth’s “The Diamond Sea.” (I had included “The Diamond Sea” in my previous post in this series, but I switched it over here.)

Nick Drake’s songs come back to me over the years; they are bare and raw and so perfectly formed and played. “River Man” seems to have to do with a world that has come to be too much, and a “river man” who knows a different way, but a way that may not be open.  The music creates a picture of it: the lingering vocals, the synthesizer against the acoustic guitar. As the song progresses, you sense the river more and more.

In the 1980s I listened to Ferron’s “Shadows on a Dime” endlessly (and heard her play it once in concert); I loved and love its syncopations, the lovely raspy vocals, the guitar sound, and the connecting stories, all leading up to the last verse:

And now a tired conductor passes by
He takes my ticket with a sigh
I don’t think he meant to catch my eye
But he doesn’t turn away.
He says “I have a daughter as old as you
And there’s really nothing anyone else can do
Do you play guitar…well good for you
Me I play the violin”
I imagine him with his hair jet black
Does he hide his fiddle in the back?
He gauged his words as the train went slack:
The New York train stops here

But I don’t forget the factory
I don’t expect this ride to always be
Can I give them what they want to see
Let me do it twice —
The second time for me.

‘Cause these windows make a perfect frame
For New York buildings like upright trains
They hold me as I hold the rain
Fleeting shadows on a dime.

It is a song of exile because the narrator, the musician, is always on the road, as are others, like the train conductor who maybe “hides his fiddle in the back.”

Now for Dávid Szesztay‘s “2120,” one of my favorite songs on his album Dalok bentre. (I heard him play on Saturday night in Szeged; you can read my review here.) The video, directed by Pater Sparrow and starring Szesztay and his family, is brilliant, eerie, beautiful and sad, but I recommend listening to the song on its own first, since there are so many ways to hear and understand it. The refrain does so much and rhythmically with the simple words “Kinn meg fagy, kinn hagytak” (“Outside and freezing, they left you outside.”) And then, at the end, the repeated “mozogjál” (“get a move on,” “hurry up”) contains its opposite; it stays instead of moving on, or it does both at the same time; the word turns into something else, something beyond leaving and staying. I have been listening to this song and the whole album over and over.

I have included Joni Mitchell in this song series before–“Coyote,” from the same album as this–but it’s impossible to leave out “Hejira” here.

I know, no one’s going to show me everything
We all come and go unknown
Each so deep and superficial
Between the forceps and the stone

Now for Sonic Youth’s “The Diamond Sea.” I love the changes it goes through, the way the music creates the diamond sea. I also love the matter-of-factness of the main melody, and the way the lyrics build. As for its exile, it’s the passage of time and the sight of the diamond sea that make you unable to come back. “Time takes its crazy toll.” The two go together; not only will you eventually see the diamond sea, over the course of time, but over time it will also have its effect on you. The music takes you through this.

And that concludes the eighth installment of the song series.

I took the photo on Saturday night in Szeged.

Song Series #7: Favorite Songs

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Twenty years ago, I could have named my ten favorite songs. They would probably have been songs of Granfaloon Bus, Hannah Marcus, Sonny Smith, Ed’s Redeeming Qualities (or maybe 100 Watt Smile), the Breeders, Dieselhed, 20 Minute Loop, Leonard Cohen, Sonic Youth, and Kristin Hersh. Today I love those same songs–and others–but have a harder time naming favorites. Knowing this, I can enjoy the challenge. Maybe my choices will change over time. Maybe they’re narrow. Maybe they’re too far flung. But these are songs that I come back to again and again. For the sake of brevity, I will name not ten but four. Not in order of preference, but as they come to mind. I am not even sure that they are my favorite songs; many others circle around them.

The first is Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat.” It’s gentle slowness gives each word, each note more than you will hear in them at one given time: this grief, this anger and forgiveness, and beyond that, the witnessing of damage done. “And you treated my woman to a flake of your life, and when she came back, she was nobody’s wife, well, I see you there with the rose in your teeth….” Many have debated what this song is about in Cohen’s own life, but to me that isn’t the real question; rather, the question is what happens within the song. The backing vocals–by Corlynn Hanney, Susan Mussman–have no words and drift slightly behind; they sound like memory itself. But it also makes the song sound like a reflection, as though Cohen were partly singing to himself. I used to play this song on guitar often. It was true to me, although I had never experienced the story in the lyrics.

The second is 1LIFE’s “Maradok ember.” I have written about the song, covered it on cello (in Szolnok and Dallas), heard it performed live, and returned to it again and again. When they played it in Törökszentmiklós in August, I realized how radical and raw it is. I hope that it will eventually be heard all over the world.

The third is Cesaria Evora’s “Petit Pays.” This song creates the feeling of an old memory. As though I could ride it into babyhood, into those first sensations of the world, and then forward again into age and knowledge. I love Cesaria Evora’s deep, caressing voice and the way the words dance against the rhythms.

The fourth is Bob Dylan’s majestic “One More Cup of Coffee”–with a voice that lilts and cries, a melody with a Jewish or Middle Eastern feel, a violin weaving in and out of sound, and gorgeous backing vocals by Emmylou Harris–not really “backing,” but side by side with Dylan’s. It’s understated; it ends before I know it, and I want to hear it again. There’s an imperfection to it, also, that I love; the violin slightly (and pleasantly) out of tune in places, Dylan and Harris sometimes blending together, sometimes sounding like two strong and separate souls.

There are at least twenty other songs I could have included here. Maybe even fifty. But there’s something to be said for choosing a few.

I made some changes to this piece after posting it; in particular, I changed the first and fourth selections.

Image: Bradford J. Salamon, KLH Turntable, oil. Featured in Southwest Art Magazine, March 2016.

To read all the posts in the Song Series, go here.

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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