They say most writers have one story to tell — and that they spend their careers just rewriting it over and over again. That’s why it’s so great to find a writer you like. Or a film director. Or a songwriter. You want to be a part of that story again, get to know its characters, walk around in its world one more time. You develop a relationship after awhile and, as with all relationships, it has its benefits and drawbacks. The closeness allows you intimacy and insight that strangers and acquaintances might not be privy to, but your ability to forgive and your eventual decision to love and the commitment that follows can blind you to certain flaws. For instance, I am no longer qualified to really comment on the merit of a Wes Anderson film anymore. Yeah, I know his films are caught in these precious, claustrophobic, elitist worlds where characters do their best to hide any real emotion–but everything looks so pretty and is framed so nicely, the songs selected so lovingly, that I can’t help myself. That’s a story I want to see repeated over and over again. Perhaps, if you believe what the writers of Stuff White People Like suggest, it must be be something in my DNA.
We’re often even more forgiving of our songwriters. (After all, they usually only ask for 3-5 minutes of our time, as opposed to a two-hour feature film.) Like old friends, we have a history together. We can listen to the opening bars of a new song and already know not only where it’s going, but where it’s been–know that it’s part of a conversation that started a while back–during countless car trips, summers on the back porch, walking down the sidewalk. Frankly, that’s what I look for in songs and songwriters–a shared history. Though that doesn’t necessarily mean that it has be a songwriter I’ve known for a long time. Every once in a while you’ll listen to someone new and get the distinct feeling that you’ve met before. Sometimes, the highest compliment I think I can offer a new song is, “Whoah, deja vu”–that spooky feeling that you’ve been there before, but you’re just not sure when or why or with whom.
Though, what happens when the songwriter starts to have that relationship with himself? More than the normal amount of self-reflection, sometimes there’s an intentional incestuousness of alluding to your own work either lyrically or musically. The Beatles were clever about it when referencing other songs or their own mythology in songs like “Glass Onion.” Famously, of course, there is John Fogerty, sued by his former label for plagiarizing one of his own songs. Bruce Springsteen can’t write a song featuring a down and out character without exhuming every John Steinbeck-Studs Terkel type hero he champions so well. Maybe what changes is just the character’s understanding of himself and what he’s capable of– balancing the burden of hope and fate–like alternate realities or parallel universes. After a certain point, for a songwriter that’s been writing for awhile, it’s impossible not to walk around with these ghosts; it’s impossible not to mix all these ashes together. Surely, this is a fate that suits some writers better than others–the difference between someone who explores all the possibilities of his ideas and characters, as opposed to someone who wallows in self-fulfillment and certainty.
In a very modest way, I was trying to write about this idea in the song The Reprise and The Reprisal. First of all, it was a rewriting of a song I wrote years ago for the Share the Pain project. It had some of the same feel and a number of the same words, but revisiting it 3 or 4 years later, laid up in a hospital in Las Vegas made me think of the song in a new light. It was called Hold Your Breath in its first life — and literally struggling for breath during that hospital stay, it seemed new to me. I liked the idea that it was a “reprise,” in the way that musicals have a reprise of a song at the end of the show. I also appreciated the meaning that the word”reprisal” adds to that idea. A “reprisal” is a retaliation for injury–one that calls for an equal amount of damage in return. So the song for me was a reprise, in its reworking of an old tune, but a reprisal too–in this case, me against my body and its illness, in the way that I felt I needed to retaliate.
So to continue the thread of previous posts, if many songs seem to embrace an acceptance for the way of things (either through the wise reflection of experience or just the need the need for survival), perhaps equal amounts of songs should seek a more satisfying retaliation against those same “things”–even when you know you’re just shadow boxing. So the choice is Old Testament/New Testament, whether to go with “turn-the-other-cheek” or “eye-for-an-eye”—just know that in either case, you’re going to get hit.