“It seems to be the fashion to take love as it comes, to examine it rather minutely, and to dismiss it rather lightly, perhaps a little sadly, and move on to greater things. But I cannot do that; I know of no greater things.”
– Frederick Exley
I’m not sure how much music has to teach us about relationships. Knowing real people is too complicated, too untidy, people themselves change too much. Whatever we can learn about relationships through music we learn obliquely, indirectly, we have to take it in and process it, apply it to our own lives and work on it. But love, whatever that is, that strange elusive thing-that-may-or-may-not-actually-exist-depending-on-how-you-define-it, love can be presented in sound in an instant. No matter how complicated, love is a many-sided jewel of a feeling that can sometimes seem as though it exists almost for the express purpose of living in song. I’ve hit the record shelf more or less at random and picked out some songs that seem to, each in their own ways, have something to say about love, whatever that is. I have a bunch of these in the works, and they’ll trickle out over time as the mood strikes me.
Eno “I’ll Come Running” (Another Green World, Island, 1975)
We’ll start simply. Brian Eno, perhaps more than anyone (save that other Bryan – see below), managed to marry the intellectual and the emotional in music in a way that was completely seamless and utterly invigorating. This simple and lovely track comes wrapped in warm synthesizers, waterfall-piano, the distant chattering of percussion, and Eno’s wide-eyed singing. He’s childlike, and not in the ironic way we’ve heard on a track like “Put a Straw Under Baby.” He seems genuine here, swept up in and in awe of lovely, beautiful longing. The drums sound like they’re giving you a hug. Not to mention Robert Fripp’s restrained guitar solo! My word! What a song! No wonder Eno has so many fans!
It’s an innocent statement, and all the more moving for it. When Eno sings “I’ll come running to tie your shoes,” it’s a phrase so full of playground associations, so elementary, he sings it like it’s the most heroic thing anyone could do for anyone else. It is the reiteration of a childhood ideal of love presented in a truly modern setting, a place both comforting and endlessly fascinating. It’s unthinkable to me that I will ever tire of it.
Roky Erickson and the Aliens “I Think of Demons” (The Evil One, 415, 1981)
This might be one of the trickier songs for me to write about in this context, but I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I left it out. I don’t understand why, but every single time I hear it I am filled with romantic hope, with the longing for a body next to mine, for whatever reason it helps me know the feeling of truly caring for someone and wanting them around. “I think of demons for you.” I don’t actually think of demons that much (I’m sure Roky Erickson does), but if someone I really liked wanted me to think of demons, I would. I would just do it, and I would do it for them. This is where the idea of love being conjured in an instant is actually brought to light. This song is full of a feeling rather than a message. There is no “if/than” here, no conditional, commerce-based love, but rather an atmosphere, a sense of what something might actually feel like to someone else, a memory of what our own feelings have been like. It’s a truly remarkable piece of music, it does something to me that is wholly unlike any other that I know.
John Martyn “One Day Without You” (In Session at the BBC CD)
Love in John Martyn’s world is always somehow feral and tender, passionate and comforting, full of longing, jealousy, rage, and caring. Love drives him to madness and despair, it has brought him to his knees and damaged him well beyond repair.
Of all of his songs, and of all the versions, this one might most fervently encapsulate this worldview. Jealously is presented directly, apologetically, and yet still with all the signs of caring and warmth inherent in its origin. “You know I love to keep you, just like I know it’s wrong to try.” Martyn loathes being without this woman (presumably Beverly), he feels like someone else when she’s not around, even for a day. At the same time he knows it’s inevitable, the natural result of his life on the road.
The song reminds us that, as Robert Creeley said, “love is eternal/ and pathetic equally.” We see the utterly incurable nature of Martyn’s devotion while simultaneously wincing at his possessive blubbering. It’s both powerful and vulnerable. And what else do you want out of music?
He recorded the song twice for the BBC. The first time (January 31, 1975) was a feathery-voiced ode, a leaf falling from a tree, presented as though it were a Christmas card wherein the previous year’s sins are apologized for while being washed over. Later, in 1977, we find a frustrated man, a man at the end of some sort of rope, torn apart by the sentiment expressed in the song, going so far as to mock himself at the beginning of the take (“Riiiight. Alriiiiiiight. Hey! Boogie! Alright! [snort]”). It is an urgent performance, tattered and self-deprecating, swallowed completely by itself.
The song reaches no logical conclusion, it follows no predictable arc. It leads us into the actual life of the performer. It leaves us musically satisfied and emotionally uncertain. It’s a lot like love itself, a shadow around the corner, the faint, far-off flickering of a brightly burning candle.
Bryan Ferry “Slave to Love” (12” single, EG, 1985)
Dylan Nyoukis calls this era of Ferry’s output “wine bar shite,” but oh what I wouldn’t give to have a seat at a wine bar like this!
Even at his most seductive and sultry, Ferry’s voice is always laced with doubt and worry. “We’re the restless hearted/Not the chained and bound.” The lovers in this song are drawn together by uncertainty, by the seductive powers of a shallow libertinism, an incurable desire for the reclamation of a rose-tinted past. In so many ways it’s a ridiculous song, but that’s what makes it so perfect for the emotional territory it charts.
It’s also extraordinarily personal. We know that Ferry has chased love his whole life, been obsessed by it, and yet his attempts have always fallen short, if anything because he’s tied it in with his image, which has become inseparable from his life. He’s a haunting, beautiful, and hilarious reminder that you can’t necessarily make yourself something that you’re not. A farmer’s son recast as an international playboy. The kid that used to look up at the house on the hill now lives in it and looks back down, with all the romantic melancholy the scenario deserves. And a decade into his career, we get this song. A summation of his efforts. A major statement that is so much more than a radio hit or the song from 9 ½ Weeks when they fuck in the clock-tower. It’s a deep well, a bottomless paradox, a fascinatingly contradictory aesthetic statement.
And for crying out loud, make sure you track down the 12”. The extra seconds add so much, they are so very worth it, they change the whole song. They turn the whole world around. Plus, even a casual, lazy listen to the instrumental version will illuminate how much of the atmosphere is carried in Ferry’s voice, and this is an important thing to keep in mind when dealing with his “later” catalog. It’s his frustration with himself that makes his music interesting. He plows through love into something that manages to come off as both awkward and suave, and there’s nothing out there that even comes close.
If anyone has a copy of the 12” with the poster still in it, please get in touch.
Richard Thompson “Beeswing” (Mirror Blue, Capitol, 1994)
Love is actually not wanting the person any other way. It’s a gesture of acceptance. It’s an opening of oneself up to the reality of someone else. To really and truly let them run wild before you. Thompson explores that concept in depth in “Shane and Dixie” on this very record, a tale of two-bit crooks in love with some horseshit Hollywood concept of fame and identity and love. If Randy Newman’s little criminals had grown up just a little and seen Badlands and Bonnie and Clyde, maybe.
But in “Beeswing” we encounter the monumentally tricky territory of our own histories, our own ideas about our various pasts. The narrator looks back on a wild love from his younger days and tells the tale of their tumultuous time together and ultimate separation. As he reflects, he begins to miss her, he longs for her, he sings through the fog of nostalgia and promises that he would go back in an instant, that if he could hold her in his arms today he wouldn’t want her any other way. While I believe that the sentiment lives in his heart, I don’t necessarily believe that this would “work.” But at the same time that idea is so drenched in romanticism – time and permanence are not the only deciding factors when dealing with emotions of this magnitude.
She sounds hard as nails when he describes her, tough-headed and independent, she keeps saying that her one condition for staying is that no price be put on love, but every time we get to the chorus she’s always “a rare thing, fine as a beeswing.” It’s as though the singer alone has this perspective, and only he has discovered this side of her. But that’s another aspect of love, the idea that we get to see parts of people that no one else sees, we can finally draw back the veil on people we really and truly want to know.
You can have your own expectations for your own life, and these can come from anywhere, but as long as there’s no price on love you can enjoy the same features in someone else. It’s so hard! It’s goddam impossible! But don’t you think it’s good to really let people be themselves? How can we hold the many-sided jewel of someone else up to the sun at just the right angle so that the light shines straight through?
What really interests me here is the idea of love without a price. I’m not sure I think that actually exists, and as such I don’t really think the people in this song can deal with “love.” But: love, when it involves truly allowing another person to be, is a terrifying prospect indeed, and at the same time this vision of love without a price holds a very real and tangible degree of romanticism, so…what are we really talking about when we talk about love?
Could this song be saying that two different forms of romanticism can come together to create something very much like love? It seems to hope so. And I think I hope so too.