Monday, December 10, 2007

Paul Haig - Something Good
Paul Haig - Something Good.mp3

This is one of my top-five songs of all-time, period. In fact, I would call it a triumph of human creativity, a spiritually profound work of art that has the capacity to evoke wonder at the miracle of simplicity and inspire personal change and growth beyond perhaps any other song I have ever heard. This, my friends, is the real deal. And it is just so damned simple. In fact, I think that perhaps the only better example of perfect simplicity in pop music history is Joy Division's Love Will Tear Us Apart. But other than that one incredible feat, Something Good is my personal favorite, amongst all the songs I've ever heard.

Paul Haig was the frontman for the legendary Glaswegian post-punk band Josef K before the band broke up and he began releasing solo records. His second solo album, The Warp of Pure Fun, is one of my two favorite albums of all-time, along with Psychocandy by fellow Scots The Jesus & Mary Chain. Something Good was released in 1989, the lead single for the LP Chain.

This song is magnificent. Life can be so confusing, so complex, but this song reduces it to something simple, moral, and good - something good. From the very first note, the crash of the cymbal, this song is mesmerizing, the bassline hooking you while the guitar expresses so much deep feeling, some sadness, some resignation. The song's lyrics are about a break up. The first verse:

Open the door
And leave behind the memories
This is for sure
Some things just had to be
And if you return
Then the sun will shine again
But I don't expect
That anything will ever be the same

There is a simple sense of acceptance here that I find very compelling. He states that "some things just had to be" and admits that it would be great if the person came back, but that he doesn't expect anything to be the same. It's refreshingly honest and provides a unique twist on typical love lyrics - something Paul Haig has excelled at throughout his entire career.

Then, the golden goose. "Take something bad...and make it into something good. Take all you had...just like the way I knew you would."

I'm going to say it again, just for emphasis: "Take something bad...and make it into something good." Is that not the simplest, most profound and beautiful thing you've ever heard? I mean, think about the way we approach our lives. Can't our thought processes about the directions we are headed be maddeningly complex? The human mind is indeed complicated, and we feel and think so much in response to what we see and experience. And in the case of something like a break up or other profound loss, the internal reactions can be very varied and intense. How wonderful, how refreshing, how beautiful, is it to hear "Take something bad...and make it into something good"? I mean, isn't that really all that we can do? Isn't that its own moral imperative, its own prime directive that if only we could all follow, we would be as happy as possible? Bad things happen. We suffer. We feel loss. It is part of life. But these things can all be made into something good. I know from experience that incredibly painful losses can be transformed into beautiful things, and that no suffering is needless. Sure, people can point to horrors far beyond that which most (including myself, certainly) have experienced, but I believe that they can be transformed too. And if only we could focus on each individual thing that happens, each tiny thing at once, one step at a time, and turn each bad thing into something good, something positive, life will work itself out.

The second verse continues:

And there is no time
And there is nowhere left to go
You give me a sign
A little thing that I should know
I read it in books
And I turned the page again
You got the looks
But nothing else will be the same

This verse is somewhat cryptic, but makes the greatest sense. It seems, to me, to be about accepting the need to move on, accepting that things end. And how better to do this than to live by the philosophy of "Take something bad and make it into something good"? If we really live by this, if we really believe that something bad can be transformed into something good, that an end can become a beginning, that pain can be turned to joy, then what do we have to fear? They have run out of time and places to go; nothing will be the same again. The final two lines are so beautiful too; the looks are the same, the same looks that can still spark the greatest desire, but what's inside has changed. But this is all said with such acceptance, such matter-of-factness. But it's still so human, so tender, so vulnerable - yet it's done with tremendous strength. "I read it in books, and I turned the page again." It's such a perfect reflection of the song's music; it's driving and strong yet so vulnerable and open. The pulsing bassline never ceases as it breathes like bare lungs, beats like a hand-held heart, and shows a resolve of concomitant fragility and impenetrability, for it is the heart that both makes us tender and gives us power; it is what makes us open to receiving others and able to give to ourselves despite them. This is the magic of the bassline, truly the heart of this gorgeous song.

And isn't this song just incredibly human for that reason? Whenever I listen to this, I feel like I am staring into the heart of humanity, both that of others and of myself. Yet this song goes beyond being human, and the heart that is revealed is the light of the soul; it is the soul's voice. Only from within the heart of the soul can love come, and only from within that same heart can come the resolve vocalized in this song, the desire to continue on despite pain. In fact, for me, it is when I ponder the idea of the soul, of the eternal, of that which is more than mere being, that I find the greatest ability to overcome pain and suffering, and to make something good from it. And isn't there a joy, an ecstasy, within the chorus? The synths rising from beneath our feet toward the sky, illuminating us from within, the words self-luminious and alive. It is ascension itself, the transcendence of time and being that leaves it behind yet grounds us firmly within it and its possibilities, revealing that the eternal, the sublime, is within even the simplest of things. Because for all the transcendent spirituality coursing through the song, isn't it profoundly simple? The "something bad" and the "something good" can be as grand as giving your life for that of another or as simple as finding you're out of the kind of ice cream you wanted and discovering a new one instead. And even in such a small act, isn't there a spiritual enrichment, a moral lesson? Learning to use pain, sorrow - the "something bad" - to create something good is the simplest thing I can think of, that which can be done in the blink of an eye, but whose effects can be felt echoing throughout our entire lives and indeed throughout the whole of the universe and the endlessness of our souls.

Paul Haig's "Something Good" is, perhaps more than any that I have ever heard, one that has changed my life for the better and has made me a better human being and a better soul, and I feel incredibly grateful that it has always been and will always be there for me whenever I need a reminder that there is a good to be found in every bad, if only we are willing to see and make it. This song has exapnded my consciousness and understanding of the beauty of the world and also helped me through some tough times, and I hope that you will enjoy it even half as much as I do, because then I will know that it has changed your life too. This is truly a song that makes even the stars themselves more beautiful.

Now that I think about it after having written this, this may just be my favorite song of all-time.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

The Chemical Brothers - One Too Many Mornings
The Chemical Brothers - One Too Many Mornings.mp3

Now this, THIS is a really personal song for me. This song goes way back for me, all the way to my freshman year of high school, which was about 10 years ago. I once listened to this song over 100 times in a row in my room, and for years I really had literally every sound in the song memorized. And while many bands and songs I was into in high school no longer captivate me in the same way, this one absolutely still does, perhaps more so than any other. There is something so simple, so elegant, so beautiful about it.

You see, the reason I chose this song is because I had a very, very interesting and enlightening encounter this weekend with a significant setting from my past: Sarah Lawrence College. At the risk of this turning into nothing more than a blog writing about myself and only myself, I'll go into it because it relates to this song for me. I graduated in May of 2005, but this was the first real time I had been back while students were in session. I went twice this summer when no one was there just to see the campus and reflect on my time there, but this was different. Out of nowhere, I decided to visit some friends of mine (some of the maybe half a dozen people I still really know there), and stayed the night last night. The experience was one of the most eye-opening ones I have had in a long time, in addition to being very fun.

The big thing I finally, truly realized is just how SMALL everything about life at SLC is. The student body is small (1200 people or so), the campus is small, the food selection is small, the number of social events is small, the squirrels are small. Going there and seeing everyone holed up in their tiny rooms, working on their tiny laptops on their papers on microbiology really drove this home for me. You see, it's a shock after living in NYC (well, Queens) for over a year now, and hanging out there with people I knew in that small environment of SLC. There is so little there, but at the time (when I was a student), it felt like so much. You create your own little insular world there, with its own values, its own activities, its own mythologies, its own politics, its own social group, its own ethics. Because doesn't everyone have to feel like they have their place in the world? And isn't college a time for many where people try to define their niche?

But here's the thing about all this smallness: I finally understand more why I was who I was when I was there, why I valued what I valued and did what I did. I also realized why it's so good that I didn't get into drinking during college. But for me, seeing my old rooms and places where significant and/or poignant moments happened in terms of my relationships and friendships was really powerful this time around, because the realization of how different I am now hit me REALLY hard. And one of the biggest things is - and this is the most obvious thing ever, but it's hard to grasp sometimes - that the place keeps marching on without me, without my friends, without all the people I knew while I was there. That campus was defined by my friends and girlfriends and so forth, but now they're all gone. None of them remain, except a few people, none of whom were close friends at that point in my life. Yet the place goes on. I mean, DUH. But you know what I mean; it's surreal to see it continue. Now the exact same place, the exact same buildings, the exact same ground, is defined by an entirely different group of people, and it will never, ever be defined by anyone I know, ever again. Something about it seems so cruel, the way it keeps marching on without the slightest qualm or regret or hesitation, the way time does so well. And it was so, so strange to walk around there with almost total anonymity. In a school that small, you ran into people you knew ALL the time; it was unavoidable, for better or worse. But it was so strange to walk around feeling that kind of alienation, like I wasn't at home there anymore.

Because, well, that most definitely ISN'T my home anymore. I've changed and grown up (thank God) in ways that really hit home last night. One of the biggest things I realized along those lines is the ways in which that environment forces you to involve yourself to an arguably unhealthy emotional degree with your significant others and friends. There is so little there, that you have to find your meaning and your fun and your activities and means of occupying your time and thoughts SOMEWHERE. I really figured out how it was that I could become so intensely entangled in the women in my life there - there was so little else to do! And for the many people there who never date anyone on campus during their time there, they usually become obsessed with their friendships. Everything, every personal relationship, is put into some kind of bizarre accelerator that makes everything move SO quickly SO intensely. And I think that for me, I found a sense of intoxication on the women in my life; that was my booze. I mean, not literally, but there are certain conceptual similarities. Many people there keep themselves occupied with booze and drugs and friend drama because, well, there's not much else to do. And that can be surprisingly fun and enriching for a time. I certainly had a great time there, and I absolutely loved the small little world I had created for myself there. I ate it up, and was addicted to the close interaction I had with all these different, interesting people - particularly when I was a freshman and a sophomore.

But things changed for me, particularly during my senior year. During the summer between my junior and senior years, I lived on-campus but had class and two internships in the city, meaning I went there three or four days every week. It was here that I really saw how different "real life" was, and how there was oh-so-much more out there than I could even glimpse at Sarah Lawrence. I didn't realize it at the time, but it completely jaded me and made me deeply unsatisfied with life on campus during my senior year. To be quite honest, I became a bit of a Scrooge about it, and grew sort of grumpy because I was just so tired of that kind of living. I wanted my life to expand and grow, not remain stuck in this small world. Now, that isn't to say that my senior year wasn't wonderful, because it absolutely was, but I was dissatisfied with still being a student there, physically there. I wasn't happy with that small world anymore, with the insularity of the campus social groups and accompanying mindsets.

And looking back now, and seeing all my old haunts, I realize how much I've changed since even then, three years ago (my senior year). Everything I had then, while it may still mean something and while I am still friends with many of those people, is gone, or at least totally different. That was like a wholly different reality for me, and nothing from who I was then is truly there any longer. Now, this may sound extreme, but I don't mean it literally. I mean, I am still very much the same person - I love pizza, New Order and bad horror movies, and I still try to be nice to other people and I still value love above all else and so on and so forth. But all those loves feel different. All my weaknesses feel different. Everything is different, even when they remain. I am still who I was then, only I'm not. I have evolved and grown, along with the things that define me, that make me, me. And seeing all these old spaces again, filled with totally different people that know nothing of me and my life and the lives of my friends and college girlfriends, makes me think about all of this. Those days are gone. And the relationships that that artificial setting facilitated are gone. Now, that doesn't mean that the love or connections that inspired them are necessarily gone, because I think there is always a deep reason why two people come together, regardless of setting, but many of the dynamics facilitated by that artificial setting are gone. It's just that even when things remain, they are also gone; they are forever leaving you. I mean think about it: every time someone leaves your house, even if you see them again an hour later, aren't they leaving your life? It is possible that they may never come back, either due to a choice they or you make or circumstances beyond anyone's control. People are always leaving and coming back to one another, there but not there, present but absent. We are always in our own thoughts, our own worlds, our own realities, even when we are sharing time and space with another. But are we ever truly sharing the same space? Even when we have sex, we penetrate space where the other is not.

Here is my current favorite chapter of the Tao Te Ching, titled "The Uses Of Not":

Thirty spokes
meet in the hub.
Where the wheel isn't
is where it's useful.

Hollowed out,
clay makes a pot.
Where the pot's not
is where it's useful.

Cut doors and windows
to make a room.
Where the room isn't,
there's room for you.

So the profit in what is
is in the use of what isn't.

In a sense, seeing Sarah Lawrence, seeing these spaces where I no longer am, and where nothing I know is, I see greater value in what is, now, in my life. And in returning to a place where I was and am currently not, in using that setting, that space, I have gained profit in understanding what is. Does that make sense? I used what isn't (Sarah Lawrence, at least not for me anymore) to understand what is (my current life). I used my past (what isn't) to gain further insight into what is (my present).

And really, isn't this principle - using what isn't to gain and learn from what is - at the basis of love and personal relationships anyway? Doesn't this principle guide existence itself? All objects, all forms, all organisms, are what they are. And what makes them what they are is a combination of what they are and what they aren't. It's like the basic principle of semiotics (as I understand it): language is the use of what isn't, essentially. It's in the words you don't select that you make a statement, and that these words gain meaning. Think about it this way: how many known forms of matter are there in the world? Why aren't all things just one massive combination of every known type of matter? Why are there individual forms that populate space? Why are forms distinct from space? Why are forms distinct from one another? Even in seemingly solid forms, there are infinite negative spaces: this is the principle behind much of the work of Robert Smithson, with his looks at crystallography. Our bodies need to fill their empty spaces with food, and we could not possibly speak without empty space in our mouths. Our tongues are useful only in conjunction with what is not. And our mouths - isn't a mouth an empty space? It is an empty space defined by what surrounds it, and nothing more. It goes every which way.

But people...couldn't we all theoretically be one? Couldn't we all be one giant beast, like Mothra or Fat Albert? This is where love becomes significant; isn't love only significant because of what is not? Doesn't love only exist because of what isn't? If there wasn't emptiness between people, emptiness which is not, then would love even be possible? Would it matter? And giving, charity (or, as some would say, love) - isn't this only made possible by a lack, by that which is not? How would we give something if it was already one with the receiver? It is inconceivable. And when we feel we overcome that negative space, that gap, when we feel we have achieved oneness with another being; isn't that the whole point in many ways? Isn't that the point of life? Isn't that what makes life truly satisfying? And how would that be possible without that gap, without that which is not? It wouldn't be, and it wouldn't even be an accomplishment, because you would already be being it. I mean, aren't nearly all senses of accomplishment of any sort dependent upon the use of what isn't? We as people are defined by what isn't and how it relates to what is, and sometimes the boundary between the two is impossible to distinguish.

This is really at the core of what I am interested in right now, and what I have always been interested in with regards to art and film. And now, the time has come for me to move from merely writing about others' exploration of this principle and to enact my own experiments and questions.

I almost forgot the fact that this is a music blog. One Too Many Mornings, for me, is like a celebration of what is not and of what is no longer, perhaps even of what will never be. When I was a 12-year old high school freshman, I would sit and imagine relationships I didn't have and never had, imagining bridging the gap that is what isn't. And although all this time has passed, this song can still make me think of that, and it still makes me remember what has been but is no longer. And although songs leave their special places in our hearts - and many have that I enjoyed so much at that point - this one always manages to come back. It is so peaceful, so serene, yet so tender and infinitely vulnerable. It's so inhuman in that it says nothing (save for the weird sample at the end), but the gentle, musical breathing of the woman is infinitely human, as if it is saying simply, powerfully: "I am." And in what she doesn't say, in the language she doesn't use, that statement is made all the more powerful. Enjoy One Too Many Mornings by The Chemical Brothers.