One of my favorite obscure songs is a ditty called "Fletcher Honorama" by a band called Sparks. Like so many bands I first took up 30 years ago, Sparks went through a "really great" phase, then some really very mediocre phases, and now has settled into a perfectly workable middle aged small label
phase. "Fletcher Honorama" dates from their very first album, released in 1972, when they wanted to wear skinny ties and retro their way through the British Invasion songs
some seven years before the "new wave" would make this a really marketable possibility. This phase of the band's career, spanning some four albums, actually culminated in the band briefly becoming a teenybopper sensation in the UK--certainly the oddest agglomeration to ever do so. But I digress.
Sparks is one of those 70s bands for whom the lyrics were very important. The two Mael brothers, who really "are" Sparks (though in the early days, like Steely Dan, Sparks was more of a band and less of a concept), always have favored a rather quirky approach to music. Ron Mael's lyrics are dark, satiric, sometimes obscure and yet more than a bit giddy. Sparks songs tell of suicide pacts in which one lover changes her mind after the other has stepped off the cliff and of what it must have been to be on the shore, impending oblivion, watching Noah's Ark sail away.
It's the sort of artsy silliness that makes rock critics gnash their teeth but makes me smile. Sparks had four really great records. Why does God give all bands only four really great records?
How curious, though, that one of my very favorite Sparks songs is "Fletcher Honorama". You see, the initial Sparks album lacked a lyric sheet. Although Russell Mael's odd, very high falsetto (unlike Geddy Lee, Mr. Mael sounds like his voice actually belongs in those high, high pitches) is usually rather easy to understand, "Fletcher Honorama" is a dark, complex slow ballad sung at the bottom of Mr. Mael's register. The words are lost in this wonderful mist of sound and density. In short, until years after the album was released, I had absolutely no idea what the singer was singing. I could hear the refrain "so be sure that the boy don't die before the morn", which somehow led me to believe that the song was a socially conscious satire about anti-semitism in a private school. The internet taught me better. The true lyrical story is a bit murky, but seems to be about an 80 year old twin on the verge of passing from this mortal coil, being addressed by a narrator who seems none too sorry to see him go (and perhaps a twin inherit his portion).
Now, we all get lyrics wrong. Heaven knows lots of tried and true chestnuts from the radio are sung by me with words that have no relation to the true words, other than a fleeting metrical similarity. Here on LJ, I see this phenomenon discussed, and I believe my daemon's name is Legion on this point. For that matter, I am not sure that lyrical fidelity by a band is all that important. Back when I'd go see the band in its Murmur and Reckoning days, I loved that Michael Stipe sang different REM lyrics from year to year. The words to REM songs never mattered much (reading the early ones on the internet rather confirms this view), as they were largely atmospheric, anyway. The 80s bands essentially broke my view that lyrics must always mean something--it's clear that lyrics need not do anything. I'll confess I still love a good song lyric; but I no longer demand one. In 1977, a band without good lyrics would never
arrive in my record collection.
But the notion of what we hear when we think we hear a lyric is fun. I regularly paste an entirely wrong lyric or an entirely wrong story into the space where I can't hear what a vocalist is saying. This form of projection--the "I'm a storytelling animal and I project a story into everything" is as human as anything. But what intrigues me is not that we all do it, and it can be funny what words we choose.
What amuses me is the idea that in all our lives we project so much of the lyrics that "ought to be there" into everything we perceive.
Epistemology is fun and all that, but it really doesn't matter (or matters too much) how we know what we know, and what we really know. But what interests me is how much of the story we must color in with mental crayons ourselves to make the picture work. I notice when I see a marstokyo theater this I see things nobody sees, and I don't mean that in a self-complimentary way. I just project the heck out of it. I've discussed before, I believe, how I imported an entire passage into the end of Great Expectations which is not really there.
But for all my imperfections, one that that "endears me to me" and yet confuses me regularly is how much "active listening" for me turns into "fill in the blanks". Oh, it's fun to fill in the blanks. But sometimes I worry that life is this really cool black and white film noir, and yet in my mind it's kinda an odd Disney animation flick, sure to break box office records in Iceland. It's not that I mind the colors--I rather like them. But in some afterlife ruled by the artists of reality, will Woody Allen appear at my trial to protest all the colorization (probably not, lack of standing)? Is an aware mind one which leaves the novelization of perceptions behind? I don't plan to answer any of those questions, nor to seriously solicit answers.
Instead, I plan to take 12 songs I know, and write new lyrics for them. As in the Alice in Wonderland story, the question is really who is the master--myself or the word.
Once I have written those 12 new song lyrics, I'm going to make a point to sing all 12, straight through. What will this achieve? Nothing. But at least I'll know the words.