Song Series #5: Verging on Nonsense

northern-northern

Two things to make clear right off the bat. First, I mean “nonsense” as a compliment; what is a good song without at least a touch of it? More about that in a minute. Second, I love this particular topic and have a hard time choosing just a few songs for this post. That said, here we go.

It might be impossible to write a completely nonsensical song, because the music holds the words together and gives them some kind of sense. Also, songs always come close to wordlessness (that is, you can hum them). Songs with nonsense words, or semi-nonsensical words, come close to a hummed state; the words act as instruments, playing out their sounds and associations.

For the first example, I choose “Hell in a Handbasket” by 20 Minute Loop, a favorite and beloved band, and my friends moreover. I originally chose “Jubilation” (and considered a few others too, including “Cora May“) but then changed to this–since the recording is so glorious, and this is one of the first of their songs I ever heard. I heard it while Greg Giles was still working out the lyrics; we were playing music together then, and he would change the words a little each time. I remember cracking up over “Northern Northern.” Over time this song took on a meaning and moved a little away from nonsense; it could be about a suicide or disappearance, yet the eruptive phrases keep you from hardening into a story. “Spun the mud like fabric,” “took the Northern Northern” keep you delightedly unsure of what this all is.

Here is the full recording (from the album Songs Praising the Mutant Race), with Greg Giles (vocals, guitar), Kelly Atkins (vocals, flute), Kevin Seal (piano, rhodes, vocals), and Darren Johnston (trumpet). Here is the teaser video; the lyrics appear below it.

Backed across that bastard,
Spun the mud like fabric,
Tires lifting dropping,
The shining river blinds me…

One false stitch is all it takes,
Just throw your fist across your face and split a lip.
What a thrill to hurt yourself without a thing to blame
for all the suffering.
Serves us right, the violent types,
a word is flipped inside your mind until it’s… shit.

Lost, all lost…

There’s no crazy crush when
The thought is lost in
All the confusion,
The current swept it off…

Back across the byway,
Took the Northern Northern,
Spinal cord and muscle,
I’m strong as hell, I’m open…

Hollow rock beside an estuary bank
of mud and slime where a boat sank.
Clothing stretched across a stone,
cold cigarettes and chicken bones are all he left.
Stinking tide reminds a rat of better times and all
the bread he left behind.
All of the crumbs and gristled fat
he threw at birds who nagged and snapped
and cursed his eyes.

The next song is “Velouria” by the Pixies (from their Bossanova album). Why this song, and not a different one? I don’t know; many songs could serve as an opening into their music, and this is one. The video here is delightfully anti-video; throughout it, they’re walking across a quarry.

Hold my head, we’ll trampoline
Finally through the roof onto somewhere near and far in time
Velouria, her covering, traveling career
She can really move, oh, Velveteen
My Velouria, my Velouria
Even I’ll adore you, my Velouria
Even I’ll adore you, my Velouria

Say to me, where have you been?
Finally through the roof
And how does lemur skin reflect the sea?
We will wade in the shine of the ever
We will wade in the shine of the ever
We will wade in the tides of the summer, every summer
Every my Velouria, my Velouria

Forevergreen, I know she’s here in California
I can see the tears of Shasta sheen
My Velouria, my Velouria
Even I’ll adore you, my Velouria
Even I’ll adore you, my Velouria

There’s something romantic about the song, and something nostalgic too, but beyond that, I don’t know what it means, and that does not bother me. What does lemur skin have to do with it all? Or Shasta sheen? According to some, these are references to the fabled lost land of Lemuria–but what this has to do with the adored Velouria, who can know? Those apparent non sequiturs keep this from being a typical love song. But you don’t even have to look that far; even the word “even” raises questions. They don’t have to be answered; they just linger.

The next is Laurie Anderson’s “Monkey’s Paw” (from her Strange Angels album) all about dreams and limitations, but also about nothing, nothing at all, and glorious in its beats and sounds. I love the sliding beween singing and speech, the funny voice dipping and soaring and cooing, the playful intensity of it all.

Well I stopped in at the Body Shop
Said to the guy:
I want stereo FM installed in my teeth
And take this mole off my back
and put it on my cheek.
And uh… while I’m here, why don’t you give me
some of those high-heeled feet?
And he said: Listen there’s no guarantee
Nature’s got rules and Nature’s got laws
but listen look out for the monkey’s paw
And I said: Whaaat? He said:

The gift of life it’s a twist of fate
It’s a roll of the die
It’s a free lunch A free ride
But Nature’s got rules and Nature’s got laws
And if you cross her look out!
It’s the monkey’s paw
It’s sayin: Haw haw!
It’s saying Gimme five!
It’s sayin: Bye bye!

I know a man he lost his head
He said: The way I feel I’d be better off dead.
He said: I got everything I ever wanted
Now I can’t give it up
It’s a trap, just my luck!

The gift of life it’s a leap of faith
It’s a roll of the die
It’s a free lunch A free ride
The gift of life it’s a shot in the dark
It’s the call of the wild
It’s the big wheel The big ride
But Nature’s got rules and Nature’s got laws
And if you cross her look out!
It’s the monkey’s paw
You better Stop!
Look around!
Listen!

You- could- be- an- oca- rina- salesman-
going- from- door- to- door.
Or- would- you- like- to- swing- on- a- star-
and- carry- moon- beams- home?
Or- next- time- around- you- could- be-
a- small- bug-
Or- would- you- like- to- be- a- fish?

The gift of life it’s a twist of fate
It’s a roll of the die
it’s a free lunch A free ride
The gift of life it’s a shot in the dark
It’s the call of the wild
It’s the big wheel The big ride
But Nature’s got rules and Nature’s got laws
And if you cross her look out!
It’s the monkey’s paw
It’s singin’: Gimme Five!
It’s singin’: Bye Bye!

The last one I’d like to include today is Virgil Shaw’s (and Dieselhed’s) “Carving Soap.” It isn’t nonsense at all, but it pushes again and again toward nothing, and it has been one of my favorite songs for over twenty years. Here’s the recording from his solo album Quad Cities (the song also appears on the Dieselhed album Shallow Water Blackout).

I pull that knife towards my thumb
in the most delicate demeanor
the blade kisses my thumb
but it does not bleed ‘er
flecks fell to my feet
where I stood there on the street
and strips they fell away
in the most usual way, uh huh

It feels good, just like chopping wood
it’s finger food, it feels good
just like carving soap should

Every time I carve the soap
I try to make out something
Every time I carve the soap
well I always end up with nothing
sometimes I’m a sailor
and I’m engraving scrimshaw on the sea
and sometimes I’m a hunter
and I’m carving a big hunk of ivory, uh huh

It feels good, just like chopping wood
it’s finger food, it feels good
just like carving soap should

I fold that knife towards my palm
in the most delicate demeanor
it’s been three weeks
since I last felt cleaner
I put that knife away
and I’m whittling my life away
I put that knife away
and I’m whittling my life away, uh huh

It feels good, just like chopping wood
it’s finger food, it feels good
just like carving soap should

The song is full of sadness and whimsy; one can easily say that it’s about wasting your life in some way, maybe–but the subtleties tell a different story, maybe about art and its hidden emptiness. Every piece of art risks being nothing, it risks being flecks of soap, as the imagined carving disappears before the eyes. Any artist risks being the one on the street, carving and carving away. But there’s also an addiction of sorts; “it feels good, just like chopping wood.” There’s some waste and loss here, and some beauty too, and something that cannot be told, except through song itself.

That concludes the fifth installment of the series. About nonsense I have said nothing at all, but I hope these songs have said something, or nothing, or a mixture of the two.

Photo credit: Back in 2016, I took the photo in the Northern Boulevard station (in Queens) and adjusted it later to say “Northern Northern,” in honor of 20 Minute Loop.

I revised this post substantially; for the 20 Minute Loop selection, I first chose “Jubilation,” then began to switch to “Cora May” (and posted an in-between draft by mistake) and then finally landed on (or in) “Hell in a Handbasket.” I made other revisions and additions as well.

For the earlier posts in the song series, go here, here, here, and here.

“The peacock spreads his fan”

I learned about Leonard Cohen’s death from Virgil Shaw, who mentioned it in between songs last night, during a superb show. I didn’t check my phone (and the news) until later, but there it was. Leonard Cohen is gone. Is that true? Is he gone? His music is playing in my mind, so he isn’t gone; the songs carry on in his place. What’s hitting me, though, is the knowledge  that his work is now sealed, that there will be no more new songs. Even more than that, it’s the knowledge that the person who wrote “Suzanne,” “Story of Isaac,” “Avalanche,” “The Stranger Song,” “Dance Me to the End of Love,” and “Hallelujah” is no longer here. Even there, it’s hard to pinpoint the sadness. He could have died earlier or later; maybe he could have lived until a hundred. At some point he would have had to go. Nor would I ever have met him, as far as I know, nor does that have anything to do with the tightness in my throat right now. What hurts is the loss of a fighter for language and song, who I trusted was somewhere breathing.

Note: I made minor revisions to this piece after posting it. It was hard to get the words right. I commented on the New York Times obituary as well; see the many beautiful comments  there.

Update: See Leon Wieseltier’s moving eulogy.

“Took the Northern Northern”

northern-northern

It has been an eventful past 24 hours. After finishing the take-home essay for my cantillation midterm, I went last night to hear the Dessoff Choirs perform a fantastic concert, at Alice Tully Hall, of Steven Stucky’s Take Him, Earth and Whispers, David Hurd’s In Honor of Martin (the world premiere of the orchestrated version), and Mozart’s Requiem.

In the morning I reviewed once more for the midterm, went and took it, walked over to Columbia Secondary School, talked for a while with the principal and a few others, came back home, and went to vote. Voted.

Later this week I will get to hear 20 Minute Loop play the record release show for their new album, Songs Praising the Mutant Race. The blog post title and photo are in honor of the phrase “took the Northern Northern” from their song “Hell in a Handbasket.”

I think about how a blog seems to give a sense of what a person is up to, but actually does not, or might not, more than fractionally. That got me to thinking about how my favorite literature tends to reveal how little we know about ourselves and others. There’s an illumination and humility in it. Such revelation can’t follow a formula; it takes you by surprise again and again, because of the way it stands out against the world, bursts from its frame, and lifts you up in its arms.