Monday, August 18, 2014

The Nothing/Nothing Paradox: The Hollies: "The Air That I Breathe"

It is a delicate thing, what this song talks about; it talks about a certain moment, a moment of fulfillment and privacy; something ordinarily not something to discuss or even sing about, but this did not stop Albert Hammond and Mike Hazelwood from baring their souls, so to speak.  This song was originally done by Hammond on his album from '72, and then by Phil Everly on his the next year, and since the Hollies were Everly Brothers fans they came across it and decided to record it themselves.  This is as much as I can figure; the Hollies needed a hit, and Allan Clarke was back in the band and able to handle the soaring chorus. 

But as usual, I have to wonder, what is this song about?  I mean, it's obviously about post-coital bliss, but what that is borders on non-existence.  "No light, no sound, nothing to eat, no books to read*" - if he could make a wish, it would to be in this state of non-wanting, to get away from the physical world altogether.  His body is weak; his mind is at rest.  He wants for nothing but to breathe, to be separate but together (he, rather bossily, tells his Other to sleep, but what if she feels the same way - pleasantly weak and wanting nothing more)?

To bring something so common but, well, intimate to a song is tricky, as it requires a noble forthrightness and honesty, which can seem a bit cloying or cheesy, and I can't say that the Hollies avoid that altogether - it has always struck me as ironic that songs that are about being happy and quiet and contented can be so, well, loud - and this does also have the hapless early 70s stigma of the whole Love Is... cartoon thing about it, as well.  Open, honest, sensitive - I can't help but applaud Albert and Mike for this, for mentioning this moment and its glory - a glory that the production makes into a kind of king-for-a-day moment, an escape from the turmoil-of-1974. 

The 70s were a time when people shared thoughts and feelings with each other, maybe overshared - though there is the inverse of the tough man who says nothing but nevertheless has feelings, dammit, and this song speaks to him, there in his privacy, reaffirming that what he feels is worth a song, a one of dips and gliding arches, rising and falling like a bird in flight.  It's not a sexy song, per se, but of peace, of stillness, of a soul at rest.  Which is nice, but...and I know I can't be the only one of my Gen X crowd who felt a little uneasy hearing this as a kid...what is this song really about?  Nothing, in essence - a falling away - a lack of self, which in Boomer logic means it must be given a big production.       

The legacy of this song is a little strange - it's kind of a mall-psychedelic-mellow-out-man song muscially; all about the ultimate moment of forgetfulness and detachment, save from the Other.  And yet there it is, reworked a bit as "Creep" by Radiohead (how many heard this song and were influenced by it?  Come on down, Richard "HEEEEEEyyyyyyyAAAAAAAAHHHHHEEEEEEYYYYYYYYYY" Ashcroft) which is the ultimate song about someone who most certainly isn't at peace, doesn't fit in, has a want and wants to be special, noticed, loved - but nope, no luck, he doesn't belong "here" - where he does belong, he's not sure, but it's not with the Others he encounters, hates and yet longs to be.  (I wonder if these Others are the posh kids going to Oxford, cool scenesters, or what.)  Radiohead were sued and gave credit where it was due for taking this song and making it their own, an angry, implacable jab at a world full of mindless bliss, oblivious to anything and anyone else.  And "Creep" has more resonance now than this song - as everyone wants to feel special, more than they want some near-death lack of want.  Or at least that's how it looks to me, these days. 

Next up:  a man who's lost without his love.

*I can't imagine another song like this that mentions books, if there are any other songs about this specific situation.


Mark G said...

Book songs, specifically about using them for their intended purpose? OK, let's ...

"Oh go and read a book, it's so much more worthwhile, being a songsmith crook, study depth in style" : Hymn from a Village - James

MikeMCSG said...

"There's more to life than books you know but not much more ": Handsome Devil - The Smiths

Robin Carmody said...

I loved this song as a child - it felt like some kind of part of my life, some kind of permanent backdrop (John Peel also admitted to being a fan), at a time when I'd absorbed a fantasy of the then-recent past, not really knowing all the stuff that had really gone on - it seemed cuddly, warm, reassuring, almost the next step on from the scenario of 'Come Back Lucy' (a children's book / TV series which gave over a very definite message against the wave of right-wing escapism and nostalgia in the 70s).

Now it's just ... *there*, an object of the past, not creepy like so many of its contemporaries, but it no longer fills the emotional role that it did then, not like 'Rock Bottom' can. The poised ambiguity that I sense in this piece, caught between multiple responses and never quite settling on one, is a good description of my response to this song now.

I know what's coming next and suspect I might also have something to say, because that one was part of my childhood too, before I really had a sense of then-current pop.