Friday, May 20, 2011

Written on an airplane earlier this week...

Spending 8 hours crammed into a plane seat in coach is not generally my idea of a good time (oh, how I miss those upgrades). One advantage, though, is that it gives me time to let my mind wander -- time that has been in short supply lately. I don't have to think about diaper changing, or work, or groceries...

Of course, many of the thoughts are still about the kids. Listening to a podcast which mentions "The Right Stuff" makes me think about how it would be fun to show the kids that movie some day -- maybe when they're 13 or so. And then the thought pops into my head -- what if one of  them wants to be a pilot? While that would be cool, I think it would be very stressful to have the same kid who right now can't feed himself in charge of making a hunk of metal hurl through the air.

In order to slow down the mental percolation enough to  get some sleep, I switched from my podcasts to a playlist of my favorite songs. (The measure of success I've had can be seen by the fact I'm composing this blog entry five hours into the flight.) As my fickle fingers skipped some songs
and lingered on others, I pondered what constituted a really enjoyable song for me.

I feel like it's easy to make a decent song out of common themes -- love (requited or no), growing up, etc. Some of the songs on my favorites list come from this source -- "Take Me, I'm Yours",
"In My Life" and "Scenes from An Italian Restaurant," to name three examples.

But what I find really cool are when an artist can take a song about a theme few others would think to sing about -- and then make it work.

Some examples I've listened to tonight:

·       Elvis Costello's "Veronica" -- a song about a woman with Alzhemier's. It brings tears to my eyes most times I hear it. (But not tonight for some reason -- maybe it's the dry airplane air.)

·       The Band's "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" -- about the end of the Civil War -- not a usual topic for top 40. Also, I always take a moment to enjoy the fact that the good guys won that one.

·       Ben Folds' "Levi Johnston's Blues" (with Nick Hornby) -- Not just a song about Bristol Palin's baby daddy -- not just a song from the viewpoint of Levi Johnston -- but a song that incorporates Levi Johnston's own words from his Myspace page and makes them sound melodious. (For the record: "I'm a fuckin' redneck, I live to hang out with the boys, play
some hockey, do some fishing and kill some moose. I like to shoot the shit and do some chillin' I guess. You fuck with me, and I'll kick your ass.") I guess this is technically about love and growing up, but it comes at it from such a different angle.

Sometimes this leads me a bit in the direction of the novelty song -- I don't think anyone's going to confuse Manfred Mann's "The Mighty Quinn (Quinn the Eskimo)" with a work of genius. These are the songs that earn a look from Christina that says, "Really?"
when they come on the iPod shuffle. In some cases, they earn a quick fast-forward -- say, Jump 'n' the Saddle's "The Curly Shuffle", or most of the"Weird Al" oeuvre -- unless she's feeling particularly indulgent.

I like to think that these are the types of songs I'd  write if I wrote songs. I don't think the world would be any poorer without another song of love lost or regrets of youth. But wouldn't it be a nicer place to live if there were good songs about pseudoprimes or meeples or identical
twins or one of the other things that race through my head on a transatlantic  flight.

You might think, "Jon, I can imagine what those songs would sound like if you wrote them, and I'm glad you don't write songs." Ah, but that's what makes songs like that so wonderful. "The Cask of Amontillado" is a great American short story; I'd have no idea how to turn it into a song -- but Alan Parsons and Eric Woolfson did. "Right Here, Right Now" was probably not the most brilliant song of twenty years ago, but the end of the Cold War was a pretty big deal, and I find it odd that this was its only musical commemoration.

I should try to get some sleep now.

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