Tag Archives: Inspiration

What Pop Music Owes to The Waste Land

“Dead mountain mouth of carious teeth that cannot spit
Here one can neither stand nor lie nor sit
There is not even silence in the mountains
But dry sterile thunder without rain”

This is a superb article by Dorian Lynskey, from last week’s Guardian online, on the debt pop music owes to TS Eliot’s The Waste Land. There can be few English students, and many others besides, on whom this colossal, transcendent poem has not left an indelible impression.  He’s right about teenagers. And musicians, too.

From Bowie to PJ Harvey (above), King Crimson, Van Morrison, The Pet Shop Boys to Chuck D…

Here is the link (with videos.) And the article in full:

The New Yorker critic Louis Menand, reflecting on TS Eliot’s transition from radical modernist to arch-conservative, wrote in a review of the poet’s letters: “He tried to shut the door on modern life. It was too late of course. He was the author of Prufrock and The Waste Land. He was already inside.”

Eliot would not have loved pop music but pop music loves Eliot. Ninety years after the publication of The Waste Land, he remains the lodestar poet for ambitious songwriters. They rummage through his masterpiece’s treasure chest of arresting phrases: the “violet hour” and “bodies naked on the low damp ground” quoted in the Sisters of Mercy’s Floorshow, “April is the cruellest month” kicking off Hot Chip’s Playboy or the “red sails” picked up by David Bowie on Lodger (Bowie told William Burroughs in 1974 that he’d “never read” Eliot but I suspect he got around to it).

Likewise 1915’s The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock. “Like a patient etherized on a table” is paraphrased by avowed Eliot fan Win Butler inArcade Fire’s We Used to Wait, “Do I dare disturb the universe?” became a song title for Chuck D, and “the Eternal Footman” crops up in Tori Amos’s Pretty Good Year. “Alfred J Prufrock would be proud of me,” declare Manic Street Preachers on My Guernica. And 1925’s The Hollow Men lends its name to songs by Faust, Gravenhurst and Cocteau Twins. And on it goes: Genesis, Gentle Giant, King Crimson, Van Morrison, Rush, EMF, Crash Test Dummies, Okkervil River, the Clientele … “This music crept by me upon the waters.”

But why Eliot, above all other poets? One simple reason is that he is widely taught in British and American schools and he impacts on the adolescent imagination with peculiar force. The Waste Land may be unfathomably complex but it is easy to love regardless of whether you understand it. The language is juicy and pungent, full of fire and rain, rivers and dust, birth and death – lots of death. I remember deriving a thrill of pleasurable dread from its sense of crisis and doom when I first read it as a teenager. Lines such as “I will show you fear in a handful of dust” or “This is the way the world ends/ Not with a bang but a whimper” (from The Hollow Men) would be at home on the back of a goth’s leather jacket. Eliot offers a vivid grown-up take on a teenager’s sense that all is not right with the world. At a difficult age you get the impression he’s on to something terribly important, even if you’re not sure what it is.

So the message resonates, in sometimes simplistic ways, but the medium also has much to teach songwriters. Just months after his death, on 4 January 1965, Bob Dylan’s Desolation Row described “Ezra Pound and TS Eliot/ Fighting in the captain’s tower.” You can understand the appeal to a man attempting to blast open the language of rock’n’roll in a period of sociopolitical flux. Eliot told Virginia Woolf that Joyce’s Ulysses, which he believed did in prose what The Waste Land did in verse, “destroyed the whole of the 19th century”. They were twin responses to the shattered postwar world – vast collages of competing voices which declared that the old ways were dead and new language was needed. But that new language was built from the bones of the old: a dizzying mosaic of allusion, quotation, pastiche and impersonation, assembled from ingredients gathered everywhere from the ivory towers to the saloon bars, ancient Greece to modern London, and inviting endless interpretation. It attempted to encompass everything in a way that could mean anything, which is a decent description of Dylan’s mission in Desolation Row. When Eliot, traumatised by the strain of composing The Waste Land, later dismissed it, he used a line you could imagine Dylan pitching to an earnest interviewer: “a piece of rhythmical grumbling.”

The poem remains a catalyst for jolting songwriters out of their usual approaches because of the relentless ventriloquism referenced in Eliot’s Dickens-quoting working title for The Waste Land, He Do the Police in Different Voices. The style enables you to open up a song’s meaning by sliding between characters and perspectives: not a single broadcast but a radio impatiently flitting between stations. Neil Tennant applied the technique to 80s London on West End Girls with its “too many shadows, whispering voices” in an unreal city where “we’ve got no future, we’ve got no past”.

Thom Yorke reached for it to evoke his own sense of dislocation and lurking horror on Paranoid Android’s neurotic babble of unidentified voices (“Please would you stop the noise”, “That’s it sir you’re leaving”, “Off with his head”) talking but not listening – “a heap of broken images”, to quote The Waste Land.

Eliot’s influence extends across the whole of PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake, which pieces together voices and images from multiple decades and countries, and collapses all that history into a single ongoing commentary on war and nationalism. You often can’t tell which lines Harvey wrote herself and which she took from existing sources; among other things The Waste Land’s collage technique is a licence to borrow without shame. One blogger has pointed out the similarity between On Battleship Hill (“Jagged mountains jutting out/ Cracked like teeth in a rotting mouth”) and The Waste Land (“Dead mountain mouth of carious teeth that cannot spit”). The critic Donald Childs believes Eliot was actually referring to Gallipoli (the home of Battleship Hill), where his close friend Jean Verdenal had been killed in action. During the campaign Australian soldiers sang the risque song about Mrs Porter that is quoted in III: The Fire Sermon. Did Harvey know all of this or is it just a case of The Waste Land’s world of echoes setting off accidental echoes of its own?

This process is apt considering The Waste Land includes allusions to show tunes, operas, folk ballads and ragtime songs among its linguistic flotsam and jetsam. In one example of cultural baton-passing Eliot took the refrain “goodnight ladies” from a 19th-century folk song and thenLou Reed took it from him.

As Radio 4’s recent broadcast of The Waste Land demonstrated, it’s a poem that wants to be listened to. The Fire Sermon in particular is full of noise: gramophones and mandolins, throbbing engines and pealing bells, “a clatter and a chatter”. Read it aloud and before you begin to thrash out what it might mean you can hear the music humming in the wires of the verse – the “rhythmical grumbling” if you like. It’s above all this sensuous, enigmatic quality that continues to inspire songwriters who want to leave all their options open; to bathe in words, and the sound of words, without locking them into a single reading. Eliot once wrote: “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” True enough, many songwriters would say, especially if you can sing it.


The Indianapolis Speech, Jaws (1975)

 

The mighty, mighty Robert Shaw in Jaws (1975). It’s three and half minutes of near-perfection. Shaw acts his salty socks off, it is perfectly paced and it’s a crackling, taut piece of script-writing.

There is a lot of conjecture and mythology surrounding this scene; about authorship, what was improvised, what was scripted. About Shaw’s sobriety. So I was interested to read this excerpt from an interview with Steven Spielberg that sets the record straight…ish.

Steven Spielberg: I owe three people a lot for this speech. You’ve heard all this, but you’ve probably never heard it from me. There’s a lot of apocryphal reporting about who did what on Jaws and I’ve heard it for the last three decades, but the fact is the speech was conceived by Howard Sackler, who was an uncredited writer, didn’t want a credit and didn’t arbitrate for one, but he’s the guy that broke the back of the script before we ever got to Martha’s Vineyard to shoot the movie.

I hired later Carl Gottlieb to come onto the island, who was a friend of mine, to punch up the script, but Howard conceived of the Indianapolis speech. I had never heard of the Indianapolis before Howard, who wrote the script at the Bel Air Hotel and I was with him a couple times a week reading pages and discussing them.

Howard one day said, “Quint needs some motivation to show all of us what made him the way he is and I think it’s this Indianapolis incident.” I said, “Howard, what’s that?” And he explained the whole incident of the Indianapolis and the Atomic Bomb being delivered and on its way back it was sunk by a submarine and sharks surrounded the helpless sailors who had been cast adrift and it was just a horrendous piece of World War II history. Howard didn’t write a long speech, he probably wrote about three-quarters of a page.

But then, when I showed the script to my friend John Milius, John said “Can I take a crack at this speech?” and John wrote a 10 page monologue, that was absolutely brilliant, but out-sized for the Jaws I was making! (laughs) But it was brilliant and then Robert Shaw took the speech and Robert did the cut down. Robert himself was a fine writer, who had written the play The Man in the Glass Booth. Robert took a crack at the speech and he brought it down to five pages. So, that was sort of the evolution just of that speech.

The full interview on Ain’t It Cool is here

And the full transcript of the monologue is…

“Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into her side, Chief. We was comin’ back from the island of Tinian to Leyte. We’d just delivered the bomb. The Hiroshima bomb. Eleven hundred men went into the water. Vessel went down in 12 minutes. 

Didn’t see the first shark for about a half-hour. Tiger. 13-footer. You know how you know that in the water, Chief? You can tell by lookin’ from the dorsal to the tail. What we didn’t know, was that our bomb mission was so secret, no distress signal had been sent. They didn’t even list us overdue for a week. Very first light, Chief, sharks come cruisin’ by, so we formed ourselves into tight groups. It was sorta like you see in the calendars, you know the infantry squares in the old calendars like the Battle of Waterloo and the idea was the shark come to the nearest man, that man he starts poundin’ and hollerin’ and sometimes that shark he go away… but sometimes he wouldn’t go away. 

Sometimes that shark looks right at ya. Right into your eyes. And the thing about a shark is he’s got lifeless eyes. Black eyes. Like a doll’s eyes. When he comes at ya, he doesn’t even seem to be livin’… ’til he bites ya, and those black eyes roll over white and then… ah then you hear that terrible high-pitched screamin’. The ocean turns red, and despite all your poundin’ and your hollerin’ those sharks come in and… they rip you to pieces. 

You know by the end of that first dawn, lost a hundred men. I don’t know how many sharks there were, maybe a thousand. I do know how many men, they averaged six an hour. Thursday mornin’, Chief, I bumped into a friend of mine, Herbie Robinson from Cleveland. Baseball player. Boson’s mate. I thought he was asleep. I reached over to wake him up. He bobbed up, down in the water, he was like a kinda top. Upended. Well, he’d been bitten in half below the waist.

At noon on the fifth day, a Lockheed Ventura swung in low and he spotted us, a young pilot, lot younger than Mr. Hooper here, anyway he spotted us and a few hours later a big ol’ fat PBY come down and started to pick us up. You know that was the time I was most frightened. Waitin’ for my turn. I’ll never put on a lifejacket again. So, eleven hundred men went into the water. 316 men come out, the sharks took the rest, June the 29th, 1945. 

Anyway, we delivered the bomb.”

How about that for a pay-off line? Just brilliant…

Sounds of Aronofsky

Exactly what it says. Sounds from the films of Darren Aronofsky.

Adventure May Hurt…

Dear Son….Love, Dad

This stunning letter was written in June 1971, from future-U.S. President Ronald Reagan to 29 year old Michael Reagan, just days before his son’s marriage. I think it is beautifully written. And very sound advice.

(hat-tip to the wonderful Letters of Note)

Michael Reagan
Manhattan Beach, California
June 1971

Dear Mike:

Enclosed is the item I mentioned (with which goes a torn up IOU). I could stop here but I won’t.

You’ve heard all the jokes that have been rousted around by all the “unhappy marrieds” and cynics. Now, in case no one has suggested it, there is another viewpoint. You have entered into the most meaningful relationship there is in all human life. It can be whatever you decide to make it.

Some men feel their masculinity can only be proven if they play out in their own life all the locker-room stories, smugly confident that what a wife doesn’t know won’t hurt her. The truth is, somehow, way down inside, without her ever finding lipstick on the collar or catching a man in the flimsy excuse of where he was till three A.M., a wife does know, and with that knowing, some of the magic of this relationship disappears. There are more men griping about marriage who kicked the whole thing away themselves than there can ever be wives deserving of blame. There is an old law of physics that you can only get out of a thing as much as you put in it. The man who puts into the marriage only half of what he owns will get that out. Sure, there will be moments when you will see someone or think back to an earlier time and you will be challenged to see if you can still make the grade, but let me tell you how really great is the challenge of proving your masculinity and charm with one woman for the rest of your life. Any man can find a twerp here and there who will go along with cheating, and it doesn’t take all that much manhood. It does take quite a man to remain attractive and to be loved by a woman who has heard him snore, seen him unshaven, tended him while he was sick and washed his dirty underwear. Do that and keep her still feeling a warm glow and you will know some very beautiful music. If you truly love a girl, you shouldn’t ever want her to feel, when she sees you greet a secretary or a girl you both know, that humiliation of wondering if she was someone who caused you to be late coming home, nor should you want any other woman to be able to meet your wife and know she was smiling behind her eyes as she looked at her, the woman you love, remembering this was the woman you rejected even momentarily for her favors. 

Mike, you know better than many what an unhappy home is and what it can do to others. Now you have a chance to make it come out the way it should. There is no greater happiness for a man than approaching a door at the end of a day knowing someone on the other side of that door is waiting for the sound of his footsteps.

Love,

Dad

P.S. You’ll never get in trouble if you say “I love you” at least once a day.

Big Mama Thornton Singing “Ball & Chain”

In 1970, with Buddy Guy’s Blues Band. It’s difficult to see how this could possibly be more anymore sublime.

Billie Holiday

“Sometimes it’s worse to win a fight than to lose.” – Billie Holiday