It’s taken me years to pay attention to the meaning of songs. Typically, the music carries me and as much as the lyrics that accompany the rousing swell of chords and trills and all the other things that make up the sounds in my ears, entrance me, I have forgotten to pay attention.
By chance the other day I came across an old YouTube clip of the comedian Norman Gunston hamming up the famed version of Delilah. The underlying descriptor: family violence, and I realised this song deals with murder.
Our narrator takes a knife to his beloved Delilah and begs her forgiveness after he shoves his knife into her for laughing at him. That is after he confronts her for making love to another man, because ‘he just couldn’t take any more’.
A song like this would not make the airwaves today. It conveys everything we know to be problematic about a person’s inability to handle feelings of jealousy or rage or whatever it is that the character who sings to Delilah just can’t take. As if it’s okay to knife someone out of thwarted love or desire.
A couple walking past our house this morning stopped to ask whether the gargoyle in our front garden is one of Graham Foote’s. It is, I told her, and we talked of the sculptor who has plastered Melbourne with gargoyles far and wide, on roof tops and in gardens.
We bought our gargoyle from Graham Foote when he worked from rooms in a huge and grand Queen Anne style house in Canterbury Road not far from where we live. Foote’s gargoyles graced this old building too.
Things were tight in those days, and we chose to pay for our gargoyles on the drip feed. Every month I visited the office in the Canterbury house with a cheque for $100.00. I paid off the cost, as Foote worked on the gargoyle.
It was a tough time for me then. Between babies, I had developed a breast lump that I feared might be cancer – it was not – and soon suffered a miscarriage.
The gargoyle represented something from my childhood. There were gargoyles on the roof of the building over the road from my school which the nuns must have owned. A Victorian single storey house, they converted its interior into a studio were the art students painted on Saturday mornings.
My elder sister was one such budding artist and one day she came home with a charcoal sketch of a gargoyle and told me about the creature’s origins. How gargoyles sat on roof spires and along the gutters to ward off evil spirits. They were meant to be hideous as a warning to troublemakers. It seems a much gentler way to say ‘stay away’ compared to a knife in the heart such as Delilah copped.
From the bottom of a well, the stars above look huge, or so Haruki Murakami tells us in his Wind Up Bird Chronicles. The notion intrigues me. As though the tunnel of the well becomes a telescope into the night sky and with all other distractions in the landscape eliminated, the person at the bottom of the well gets a clear view of the night sky above.
You can do something similar on a much smaller scale if you cup your hands together to form a cylinder and then look through the space you have created. Whatever you observe seems magnified, purely because it has lost all peripheral elements which might dwarf its size.
Is this why we speak of tunnel vision when people can only see things close-up but in limited quantities, as though they can’t take in the perimeters of their lives and other people’s lives. Like horses in blinkers who are blocked from seeing what lies beyond the road ahead. They stay focussed on the task.
It puts me in mind of the word ‘hoodwink’, the way it derives from the hood falconers once used, and presumably continue to use, to cover their birds’ heads when resting, so that they will not be distracted by the sight of potential prey.
Prey drive, our dog trainer tells us, is a compelling force for a dog and once in prey drive, it’s as if the dog loses all sense of control. The dog does not hear you then, so intent on hunting down their prey.
For a dog it can be as simple as a ball on the other side of a field. That is for a dog who is ball-obsessed. A look in the eye that in itself becomes one of tunnel vision. A stance that says, I must have that ball. Like our narrator in Tom Jones’s Delilah who just can’t take any more.
I spent eight years of my life working on a thesis that explored the nature of life writing and the desire for revenge. A feeling that can so possess a person, they lose their reason. But as I argued in my thesis, the desire for revenge is part of a journey. That is, if we can hold onto the feelings, the sensations of pain and rage and not act on them. If we can sit in our blinkered state nursing our griefs and rage, pain that is typically attached to shame, then we can emerge with a clearer view.
Like a rising star or the moon in full glow, to use someone else’s words borrowed from somewhere. I can’t remember where, so many words cross my field of vision, so many ideas clutter my crowded mind.
Other’s people’s words have long intrigued me. When I was young and read books, I thought that I would never be able to put ideas into words. I borrowed other people’s words almost verbatim, ashamed to put my own thoughts into my own words.
It has taken me years to get beyond this tunnel view that says other people’s words are superior.
Everybody’s words matter but how they’re used makes all the difference.
One thought on “Other people’s words”
Here’s a confession: I am terrible at remembering lyrics and even worse at interpreting them. It just never seemed to interest me that much. Poems, yes; stories, yes, lyrics, no. I mean, I never even tried and, on the few occasions songwriters have talked about the meaning of and/or behind their words, it’s always surprised me even the blindingly-obvious ones like ‘Lola’ by The Kinks. How many times had I heard that song before someone mentioned it was about two blokes? I heard McCartney talking about how he went about writing songs and, apparently, he quite often uses temporary lyrics to fill the holes and then reworks them later. Which is how he ended up with the words to ‘Waterfalls’ and then decided they worked just fine. (I’ve just read the Wikipedia entry and, seriously, my first thought was: Oh, is that what that that means?) Lyrics, for me, always felt like making up something for the vocalist to do which is why I liked bands like Cocteau Twins where the lyrics are basically unintelligible or Lisa Gerrard, who just makes up “words” to fit the music. Takes all the pressure off.