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.

Dávid Szesztay in Szeged

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This is one of the easiest concert reviews I have ever written. At one level, it’s obvious why Dávid Szesztay’s show last night at the Grand Café in Szeged was so good. First, it was beautiful from start to finish. Second, he speaks the language of music like someone born to it. Third, he has something to say, through music. Fourth, he has wonderful bandmates. Fifth, there’s an integrity to his performance. He doesn’t show off, doesn’t put on a pose, doesn’t do anything except convey this music as he hears it–singing, fingerpicking the guitar, dropping chords and rhythms onto the keyboard with ease. The songs are his (except for a couple of collaborations with András Lovasi from Kiscsillag), but he seems like a messenger who brings you the music from somewhere inside you. As though it were already there, and he were translating it for you, and you were listening with recognition and surprise at once.

Maybe that’s part of the meaning of the album title, Dalok bentre (possibly translatable as Songs for Indoors, though I sense several meanings). But these songs also open up and build, without your even noticing it; they carry you along, and then you suddenly wonder, how did I get here? That happened with several of my favorite songs so far: “Szólj,” “2120,” “Jóbarát,” and “Beleszédültem.” There were a few times when the audience wouldn’t clap until the last note had faded away. From what I felt around me, the audience loved the show; there was no sense that we had to hold back our enthusiasm, and no point in doing so either. The cheers and applause built up as the show progressed, leading up to an encore.

 

I began by saying “at one level,” since there’s much more to the music than I could describe right away, or ever. The rhythms, chords, lyrics, and tones come from years of composing and playing. But you can feel them without understanding exactly what’s going on. And even if you don’t understand all the lyrics, it’s as if you did, because they too speak the language of music.

From “Szólj”:

és táncol a szemeteszsák
ordítja gyere világ itt vagyok
érted dagadok fel
érted szakadok fel hogy

Szólj!
hogy végre szólj!

A rough translation:

and it dances, the garbage bag,
come, world, it screams, I’m here,
for your sake, I puff myself up,
for your sake, I break myself up so you’ll

Speak!
Finally speak!

After the show, I bought a copy of Dalok bentre from Mr. Szesztay himself–a beautifully crafted box CD with a postcard for each song: a photo of the natural outdoors–trees, fields–on one side, and the lyrics on the other. (The photos on the postcard were taken by his wife, the acclaimed violinist Luca Kézdy, with whom he plays in their band Santa Diver.)

I learned about Szesztay through Kiscsillag. When I went to the 1LIFE/Kiscsillag show in Törökszentmiklós, I was especially taken by the song “Ott ahol akarod” (music by Szesztay, lyrics by Lovasi). I later found the video, listened to it over and over, and then looked for Szesztay’s solo work. (I am just beginning to discover it; he has been composing for many years.) I am also eager to hear more of the Szesztay/Lovasi songs. They are a great combination. Dalok bentre has two songs that they wrote together, “Téli nap” and “Elindul.”

There is no need to say more. Listen to these songs if you can. Go hear him and his band if you can. I hope to hear them again soon. And it was great to return to Szeged (my seventh time there). After the concert I walked to the bridge to look at the water. I then went to the hotel and looked at the album (which I played after returning to Szolnok today). The sights and thoughts mixed with memories of sounds. A good end.

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