Here’s a poem a friend of mine recommended to me a long time ago when I was moping over one of the ones that got away (one of my students told me he fell in love with the woman who would later become his wife the moment he saw her; since he was a college student and she was still in middle school, he had to wait awhile before they could “do anything,” as he put it–just to show you that these kinds of things sometimes do work out, despite everything we cynics might say).
You may notice that the poem has a startlingly modern tone, despite having been written in the year 1638. If you closed your eyes and asked a friend to read it to you, you could swear you were standing in a nightclub with techno music playing. That’s how brand spanking new it sounds.
The author’s name is–now don’t laugh–Sir John Suckling--and the poem is entitled simply “Song.” (I guess they weren’t so big on titles back then. It’s kind of like being an artist who names your sculpture or painting “Untitled.”)
Why so pale and wan, fond lover?
Prithee, why so pale?
Will, when looking well can’t move her,
Looking ill prevail?
Prithee, why so pale?
Why so dull and mute, young sinner?
Prithee, why so mute?
Will, when speaking well can’t win her,
Saying nothing do ‘t?
Prithee, why so mute?
Quit, quit, for shame; this will not move,
This cannot take her.
If of herself she will not love,
Nothing can make her.
The devil take her!
I first heard this poem a few years after Bonnie Raitt came out with her hit “I Can’t Make You Love Me If You Don’t.” This song made me sad because I felt guilty about having broken up with a woman who was in love with me. A couple of years later, when I heard it again, the narrator in the song could have been me.
It’s curious how so many of the songs you hear are about how tenuous love can be–insecure attachments (“Baby, Baby, Don’t Get Hooked on Me,” by Mac Davis) born of male vanity, strategic break-ups (the Manhattans’ “Let’s Just Kiss and Say Goodbye”) likewise born of male vanity, the fallout of lost romance that makes you feel more alone than you ever dreamed possible (Frank Sinatra’s No One Cares, a work supposedly inspired by his having been dumped by the love of his life, Ava Gardner, perhaps the first concept album ever recorded, and a collection of songs so depressing Ol’ Blue Eyes told a friend that every copy should be “sold with a gun so after you listen to it once you can blow your brains out”; or maybe he was just making an editorial comment as the violins arranged by producer Gordon Jenkins were so eminently cloying)–songs like the Beatles’ “I’m a Loser” or the Rolling Stones’ “As Tears Go By,” not to mention “You Don’t Miss Your Water (Till Your Well Runs Dry),” covered separately by soul titans Taj Mahal and Otis Redding, both around 1968, the last year of Redding’s life; he died at age twenty-six in a plane crash, although he had the voice of a much older, wiser, more experienced man (for some singers, cigarettes can serve as a kind of musical instrument; for example, Tom Waits).
Last week I played a couple of songs for some of my students, including Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me” (though the live version available on You Tube sounds slightly distorted), Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes’ 1992 (“Ohnee Filter”) live rendition of the Left Banke’s “Walk Away, Renee,” which may be the single most entertaining recorded performance of a song I’ve ever seen (I’ll try to attach it to my next entry–something I’ve never done before), Al Wilson’s “Show and Tell,” and the Stylistics’ “You Make Me Feel Brand New.” (The first time I heard that song I was in the car with my family on the way to hockey practice during primary school days; I thought the chorus was “You make me feel pregnant.”)
I always thought the refrain of the last song on that list was sung by a woman, but of course the singer is a man who renders the lyric in a falsetto. His voice isn’t quite as high as that of Minnie Ripperton (sic?) of “Loving You” fame, but it’s up there.
Speaking of male singers with high voices, I apologize for having written in a recent post that Neil Young should stop singing. I haven’t heard anything he’s done in the past several years, and he’s one of the few old-timers who can still belt out a tune with aplomb. I also worship the ground he walks on, even if he is just another miserable, suffering mortal like me and everyone else in the world.
Randy Newman, on the other hand, has no right to even attempt another album. He lost his voice a long time ago and never got it back. Like Stevie Wonder, he’s one of these long-distance hobblers who did his best work back in the ’70’s. Besides, both of those guys already have so much money, you’d think they’d know when enough was enough. (Newman’s made most of his dough writing sappy soundtracks for Disney–thanks, Randy–just what we need.)
As for a remark made in the same post about how comedians usually have more staying power than musicians over the years, please add to that list the names of indefatigable (albeit, in the case of the first name, deceased) performers such as Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers. The latter claims she’s had plastic surgery so many times that her grandchildren call her “Nana New-Face.” The woman lives and breathes comedy. Whether you think she’s funny or not, you can’t say she doesn’t take her job seriously.
I was going to write an attendant spoof of the John Suckling poem–excuse me, Sir John–but it’ll have to wait for another post. Apart from its stilted tone, what he has to say makes sense. Don’t ask me why (oh, shit–I’ve just inadvertently quoted Billy Joel) so many of us waste so much energy beating a dead horse when it comes to unrequited love. Luckily, I’m past that–at least for now. After awhile, love leaves you too numb to fall in it anymore. It’s like trying to go snowboarding with two broken legs.
Have a nice night, and a good day after that!