Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Word 'Love': Russ Hamilton: "We Will Make Love"

It almost goes without saying - but I will say it anyway - that language is a soft, squishy and supremely malleable thing, particularly the English language. It is a ravenous, ever-changing beast which, in the words of a future subject of MSBWT, may well be a virus from outer space.

Music has been part of this viral experience, of course. "What did s/he just say/sing?!?" is a subject of debate, confusion and disbelief for some time now. (Even when lyrics can be deciphered, they still may not make any sense, of course; one of my favorite lyricists, Stephen Malkmus, has a way of making the commonplace...not so common, to say the least.)

Then there's of course the way you sing something. Russ Hamilton, at first glance, has got a pretty four-square ahem ahem title here. But the song - and particularly the way he sings it - is as fresh and pure as the first day of spring. You just know that when he and his girl (clearly they are young sweethearts) go to that secluded place they are going to do something, but not anything that will lead to a hasty trip down the aisle. Making love here sounds warm and cosy and reassuring, in part to the golden syrup-voiced Hamilton and in part to the gently swaying music, which is close to a waltz, if it isn't one already.

The drama in the song comes from the fact that the narrator has to go away - he asks his beloved to be faithful, with the promise that they will once again make love in a place far away from where they live, a place they have always dreamed about, "in the clouds up above." I still cannot figure out whether this means he is going away (for the regulation stay in the National Service, perhaps) or something a lot stranger. The music doesn't have any odd key changes or anything that would signify other worldliness, so I can only guess it means they're going to go on some exotic vacation once he returns. But he makes it sound so much like they will be in heaven that the mere act of making love sounds almost redundant. And yet that is what the song is about! Love is clearly not sex here, but some kind of aura that is almost impossible to describe, something so big it transcends the merely physical world and may even last beyond death itself, ultimately.

And so we have our first lesson in love from a Liverpudlian. There will be others, but none will be quite as quietly supernatural as this one.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Perfect Love Forever: Nat King Cole: "When I Fall In Love"

It is a late winter night, or should I say, evening, on a calm and pleasant street. The days are now perceptibly longer and warmer, the branches of trees and hedges all show hopeful buds for the spring. Very slowly they are opening, showing color -a pale green here, a bubblegum pink there. Venus burns steady near the horizon while the moon hangs in a crescent smile.

It feels like spring, but spring is not really here yet - not quite. In this time, there is eagerness for it, but sure enough the winds turn fierce and cold, the rain comes, and a gentle stroll down the street is out of the question.

So it is with weather; and so it can be with the heart. "When I Fall In Love" sounds at first like a romantic song - aah those strings! And it's Nat after all, his voice as warm and soothing as a good bowl of soup. It is a romantic song, but it is conditional - when and if stand like two fences between the narrator and whoever is on the other side. The ultimate - and to some people, frightening - phrase comes right at the beginning: "it will be forever, or I'll never fall in love."

The original version of this song is from a movie set in the Korean War called One Minute To Zero; it is sung by Doris Day, and gives voice to a widow (Ann Blyth) and her soul. She is a UN official who has lost her heroic husband in combat and now who should she run into but Robert Mitchum, who no doubt gives her that look, that smile. During any war, passionate bonds are made for life, bonds of all kinds, but she wonders, could it last? Because if it isn't for life, she's just not interested. (Without having seen it, I can't judge how much a settling-down type Mitchum portrays - my guess is, only a little.)

And so this dreamy song - musically at least - is rather tough, but it is a toughness that is as protective as it must be, given the circumstances. She knows full well what love is, and how she will be when and if it happens to her again. To tender young hearts who have only experienced crushes or infatuations or been boy/girl-crazy, this song may have been a 'romantic' song that they could aspire to, hopefully; for those more hardened to life, it is not so much 'romantic' as it is 'obvious.' Crucially, the 'you' in the song has to feel the same way or there is no falling, no removal of the 'when' and 'if.' (I can well imagine Erich Fromm liking this song, even if he was opposed to the phrase 'to fall in love' - for him you can stand in love, in his mind, falling is too passive.)

Ther have been dozens of covers of this song (one of which I will write about here in the fullness of time), but you may laugh when I tell you, dear readers, of how I first heard it.

It was a spring night (or was it? It felt like it was) and I had a new tape, an odd thing as it was more like an EP than an album. All the songs were done in the studio save for the last one which was recorded live somewhere in the UK before a very responsive audience. The song started up - the band's own song - with drums, bass, guitar and a violin I think, but only after the repeated question (from Shane) about shooting a man in the back. Then the singer comes in, sounding almost as if he is on fire. The song is introduced, then the chorus comes in - and then after the guitar break, all goes relatively quiet as the singer begins to sing other songs. First, James Brown's "Sex Machine" - the band suddenly becomes a post-punk JBs, which shows how good they are. Then The Beatles' "All You Need Is Love" is flattened and sped up, the seemingly daft lyrics being dragged into commonsense. Then, a hush - the band are barely audible as the singer begins "When I Fall In Love" - a song whose sentiments fit neatly back into the band's own song, which they return to pronto, but not until the whole place goes quiet as the singer - yes, it is Ian McCulloch, this is Echo and the Bunnymen - croons as soft and sweet as Nat, giving his soul in a way that U2, their main rivals, have yet to learn. Then as "Do It Clean" roars back into life, Ian's voice goes up and up, to a climactic "Yooooooooouuuuuuuuu-hooo!" And thus the night ends, and the toughness and calm of this song are given a new life, a faithful deliverance.