Recent conversations over coffee with Deane and the beginnings of a new research project (on science fiction genre convention across cultures and Christian imagery in the Japanese anime film Neon Genesis Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone) has me thinking a good deal about metaphor and other figures of speech.
This has coincided with a mild (and growing) obsession with the great indie rock band The Mountain Goats, the pen name of the singer and songwriter John Darnielle and whoever he happens to be working with. Darnielle’s massive output has included such masterpieces as Tallahassee (a 2003 concept album about divorce), The Sunset Tree (2005), and the recent The Life Of The World To Come (2009), a fascinating slice of reception history that features 12 songs inspired by individual verses from the canonical Bible (The Mountain Goats website can be found here).
One of the things that makes The Mountain Goats such a pleasure to listen to is the fact that, not unlike writers like the philosopher/cultural critic Jean Baudrillard, the novelist Chuck Palahniuk, and the great theologian/existentialist/madman Søren Kierkegaard, Darnielle relies almost exclusively on indirect forms of communication, approaching and constructing his worlds of meaning from every conceivable angle, no matter how oblique. For your pleasure, pondering, and perhaps confusion, a few of The Mountain Goats’ greatest (or most evocative) leaps in both language and logic.
From ‘Old College Try’ (Tallahassee), Darnielle manages to weave an oddly romantic metaphor out of a series of random images that would not be out of place in a Murakami Haruki novel:
… From the entrance to the exit/ Is longer than it looks from where we stand
I want to say I’m sorry for stuff I haven’t done yet/ Things will shortly get completely out of hand
I can feel it in the rotten air tonight/ In the tips of my fingers
In the skin on my face/ In the weak last gasp of the evening’s dying light
In the way those eyes I’ve always loved illuminate this place
Like a trashcan fire in a prison cell
Like the searchlights in the parking lots of hell
I will walk down to the end with you/ If you will come all the way down with me
Again, in ‘Broom People’ (The Sunset Tree), Darnielle builds a love song out what T. S. Eliot so memorably called (in The Waste Land) ‘a heap of broken images’, though Eliot would never have used such charmingly domestic visuals:
’36 Hudson in the garage/ All sorts of junk in the unattached spare room,
Dishes in the kitchen sink/ New straw for the old broom,
Friends who don’t have a clue/ Well-meaning teachers,
But down in your arms,
In your arms, I am a wild creature.
Floor two foot high with newspapers/ White carpet thick with pet hair,
Half-eaten gallons of ice cream in the freezer/ Fresh fuel for the sodium flares,
I write down good reasons to freeze to death/ In my spiral ring notebook,
But in the long tresses of your hair
I am a babbling brook.
From Heretic Pride (2008), we have ‘Sax Rohmer #1’, which is about something lovely, though I have no idea what that might be. (any suggestions from our readers would be welcome here). The final figure/image is a keeper, something J. G. Ballard does half as well with ten times as many words in his novel Crash:
Fog lifts from the harbour/ Dawn goes down today
An agent crests the shadows/ Of a nearby alleyway
Piles of broken bricks/ Signposts on the path
Every moment points toward/ The aftermath
Sailors straggle back/ From their nights out on the town
Hopeless urchins from the city/ Gather around
Spies from imperial China/ Wash in with the tide
Every battle heads toward/ Surrender on both sides
And I am coming home to you/ With my own blood in my mouth
And I am coming home to you/ If it’s the last thing that I do
Bells ring in the tower/ Wolves howl in the hills
Chalk marks show up/ On a few high windowsills
And a rabbit gives up somewhere/ And a dozen hawks descend
Every moment leads toward/ Its own sad end
Ships loosed from their moorings/ Capsize and then they’re gone
Sailors with no captains watch a while/ And then move on
And an agent crests the shadows/ And I head in her direction
All roads lead toward/ The same blocked intersection …
‘Up the Wolves’ (The Sunset Tree) features one of the strangest, and most oddly stirring, calls to arms I’ve ever heard:
… Were going to commandeer the local airwaves/ To tell the neighbours what’s been going on.
And they will shake their heads and wag their bony fingers/ In all the wrong directions,
And by daybreak we’ll be gone/ I’m going to get myself in fighting trim,
Scope out every angle of unfair advantage.
I’m going to bribe the officials.
I’m going to kill all the judges.
It’s going to take you people years to recover from all of the damage.
Our mother has been absent ever since we founded Rome/ But there’s going to be a party when the wolf comes home.
And finally, from the immortal ‘No Children’ (Tallahassee), simply one of the finest and most frankly brutal break-up songs in recent memory, one which uses a descriptive language that is so oddly naked that it seems to hide its meaning in plain sight:
I hope that our few remaining friends/ Give up on trying to save us
I hope we come up with a failsafe plot/ To piss off the dumb few who forgave us
I hope the fences we mended/ Fall down beneath their own weight
And I hope we hang on past the last exit/ I hope it’s already too late
And I hope the junkyard a few blocks from here/ Someday burns down
And I hope the rising black smoke carries me far away
And I never come back to this town …
I hope I cut myself shaving tomorrow/ I hope it bleeds all day long
Our friends say it’s darkest before the sun rises/ We’re pretty sure they’re all wrong
I hope it stays dark forever/ I hope the worst isn’t over
And I hope you blink before I do/ I hope I never get sober
And I hope when you think of me years down the line/ You can’t find one good thing to say
And I’d hope that if I found the strength to walk out/ You’d stay the hell out of my way
I am drowning
There is no sign of land
You are coming down with me
Hand in unlovable hand
And I hope you die/ I hope we both die …
(Thanks to the exhaustive fansite/archive themountaingoats.net for help on some of the more obscure passages).
A recently released Italian book provides a song-by-song commentary on the lyrics to U2 songs from all twelve studio albums. What I want to have a quick look at, here, is the interesting media reception which U2: The Name Of Love (Rome: Arcana, 2009) provoked – a reception that illustrates the role of the reader and listener in observing and construing biblical allusions.
In his introduction to the book, journalist-author Andrea Morandi explains that his commentary will attempt to identify the literary and historical influences of each song, as well as place them within a biography of the band’s development over the last 30 years or so:
“This book attempts to tell the story of U2 sequentially by putting together the pieces of a mosaic: 137 songs, one after another, combined to produce the final design. The structure is like that of a film script that begins in 1974, in a cemetery in Dublin and ends in 2009 in Beirut. In between there are twelve chapters on twelve records, involving America and the Bible, Karl Popper and Johnny Cash, New York and Berlin, Barack Obama and Margaret Thatcher, El Salvador and the British miners, the supermodel and the IRA. A hundred and thirty tales, in which we follow the evolution of Paul Hewson, a boy who begins by writing lyrics in the first person as in a journal and who, album after album, becomes increasingly aware of his literary power, learning lessons from Bob Dylan and John Lennon, joining together fragments from anywhere: popular and high culture, ancient and modern, the Psalms of David and Jack Kerouac, Flannery O’Connor and advertising slogans, the book of Habakkuk and Wim Wenders, but also the world and its changes, the fall of the Wall to September 11.”
The introduction stresses the great diversity of influences on U2’s lyrics, and this variety of literary and historical factors is documented more fully throughout the 664-page book. As you see, there is no special emphasis on biblical influences, but rather, these are integrated into the book along with relevant literary and historical influences.
So how did the media receive it?
First: the Vatican daily newspaper. An article published in the 4-5 January 2010 edition of L’Osservatore Romano included a number of comments on Andrea Morandi’s book. The article, by journalist Gaetano Vallini focuses, somewhat unsurprisingly, on the biblical allusions in U2 songs. The article notes, quite correctly, that U2’s 1981 album, October stands out as especially significant for its biblical and Christian allusions, but that such allusions can be detected throughout U2’s subsequent albums. While the Vatican’s newspaper is understandably slanted towards this particular aspect of Morandi’s book, and this aspect of U2’s music, it does not misrepresent the content of the book.
But now consider an article which was published by UK newspaper The Guardian, on its music blog (6 January 2010). Laura Barnett’s article reported both on Morandi’s book and its review in the Vatican’s newspaper. The Guardian‘s article is headlined as follows:
U2: Rock’n’roll’s answer to the Book of Common Prayer?
Is Bono really a true crusader for Christianity? Two Italian journalists have examined his lyrics and discovered Biblical allusions in almost every song
The remaining content of the Guardian article is typical of the UK media’s inability to understand religion, a failure that frequently boils over into outright animosity, as it does here. Barnett’s article continues by incorrectly reporting that the Vatican’s newspaper article constitutes “the official endorsement of the Vatican” on U2. (It’s not – it’s some Vatican journalist’s piece.) Her article then describes the Vatican article as “mak[ing] the case that Bono is a true crusader for Christianity”, and reports that his lyrics are “a veritable treasure trove of Biblical references and allusions.” She follows this up by claiming that, in his book, “Andrea Morandi laboriously extracts Biblical allusions from almost every U2 lyric.” This is patently untrue, and suggests both a misreading of the Vatican article (which only claims such a comprehensive degree of biblical allusions on the album October) and a complete failure to read Morandi’s own book. As the quotation from U2: The Name Of Love shows above, Morandi’s book contains a great diversity of literary and historical sources for Bono’s lyrics, of which biblical allusions form a regular but not all-pervasive presence.
What is particularly amusing about Barnett’s hatchet-job is that, in the one case where Barnett concludes there is no biblical allusion, she gets that wrong as well. Barnett objects when L’Osservatore Romano finds a biblical allusion in the song “Magnificent” to Mary’s magnificat in Luke 1. She comments that this “feels like an extrapolation too far.” What is interesting here, for me, is that the words to “Magnificent” can be interpreted as secular by someone without any great biblical literacy. Whereas, the case can be just the opposite if you have the words of the magnificat in your “intertextual encyclopedia” – as Bono confesses he himself did, when he wrote the song. Not that I’d proffer the songwriter’s own comments as in any way decisive on the issue.
What is also fascinating about this largely religiously illiterate Guardian reviewer is that she clearly feels that she has been “taken in” by U2. At the conclusion to her article, she wonders if listeners should steer clear of U2 for fear of “religious conversion by stealth” (my emphasis). She doesn’t quite understand the biblical allusions in U2’s music, but now she knows that they’re there. And if she can’t determine where they are exactly, they could be bloody anywhere! Despite a career in musical journalism, which should have afforded her with some degree of acquaintance with bands like U2, it seems that U2’s regularly biblical allusions and Christian themes have largely passed over her head. And on this point, she might have got something right. U2’s lyrics have always been able to speak in different ways to different audiences, depending on the community to which they belong and that community’s particular goals, interests, and knowledge.
See also: some (more timely) comments on the issue from Beth Maynard and an interview between Scott Calhoun and Andrea Morandi.
I usually try to ignore the dull drone which is the sorry excuse for the New Zealand national anthem – on those occasions when it is forced on me in public. So I propose that they change it to something that would really get everyone on their feet! Something which really reflects something of the national psyche!!
This is why I am spearheading a campaign to change the New Zealand national anthem to “It’s Sheep We’re Up Against”. Much like our old national anthem, it was even written by some Pommy bastard (sombody in 1980s band, the Housemartins). And unlike the old national anthem, it is desirably self-deprecating and almost impossible to get jingoistic about (which, from my decidedly unnationalistic point of view, are ideal qualities for a national anthem if we must have one).
Yet, the chorus-line somehow captures what it is to be from these tropical South Pacific isles (and more so if you’ve ever been a farmboy in Southland, according to the best estimates).
So join the Campaign to change NZ National Anthem to “It’s Sheep We’re Up Against” Facebook Group, and make a real difference to the world you live in and to the lives of sheep everywhere.
Indeed, it’s sheep we’re up against. Take it away, fatboy…
Tom Morello, Rage against the Machine: “We would now like to play a song for you.”
BBC: “Let’s get Christmassy.”
– BBC Radio 5
Each Christmas, the Brits attempt to feel good about themselves by sending a really stupid, warm fuzzy song to the top of their pop charts. But this year, as the result of a successful campaign organized via Facebook, the UK Christmas Number 1 got hijacked by Rage Against the Machine’s classic 1992 fuck-you song, “Killing in the Name”.
The song was given some extra publicity when BBC Radio 5 prematurely cut short a live performance of the song, but not before the band delivered four “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me”s over the BBC’s prissy pommy airwaves. The BBC doesn’t get upset when the Brits completely fuck over Afghanistan, Iraq, immigrants, workers, etc – but utter the word “fuck”, and that really is rather objectionable and unseemly and should be stopped immediately, please. After all, the main intent of the UK Christmas Number 1 lies in providing the anaesthesia to allow the Brits to forget about their endless military invasions and economic violence (all safely hidden and out of the way, thank you very much). Instead, this year, the anaesthesia got converted into a giant motherfucking molotov cocktail.
“Make no mistake about it, this was a political act! This was an entire nation delivering a stinging slap of rejection to the whole notion of pre-fabricated pop ruling the charts.”
– Tom Morello, Rage Against the Machine
“Whether it’s in a small manner, like who’s at the top of the charts, or bigger matters like war and peace, and economic inequality, when people band together and make their voices heard, they can completely overturn the system as it is.”
– Tom Morello, Rage Against the Machine
Finally, some Christmas music worth playing on Christmas Day.
Unusual conferences are great! In a couple of weeks I’ll be flying out to Durham, North Carolina to take in the first academic conference on U2.
The conference program is here and includes stuff from a whole range of different disciplines. I’ll be presenting on fallen angels in U2’s music, and the interrelationships with ancient Jewish and Christian accounts – and mixing it up with some thoughts on how to avoid the ‘original versus deviant copy’ approach to reception history.
If you’re intrigued, come along! Registration is open to anybody who’s interested.