Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Four Songs About Heartbreak

I bought my new car stereo because my old one started having a nervous breakdown and I was about to go on a road trip that I had been planning for months. I got a nice one (a car stereo, that is) and it has a feature for which I hadn't really been looking: it plays MP3s. Whatever; mostly I wanted a stereo through which I could eventually play a one-day-to-be-purchased iPod.

Like every other person in America, I had been burning mix CDs, but those CDs only held as many songs as a pre-recorded CD. But I soon discovered that if I burned the songs as MP3 files, then one CD could hold up to 120 songs. What did this mean? That I lost hours and hours of time sorting through the 6600+ songs on my rig looking for the best songs to listen to at an unreasonable volume while I was driving. I ended up with 591 songs that I dumped into a huge iTunes Playlist and then shuffled and burned onto five CDs.

Now, these weren’t all songs with high beats-per-minute counts, though they did make up a majority of the songs; I also put in some great sad songs because, man, sometimes you just need a sad song when you're driving. Maybe you're driving by a beautiful orange orchard, and it somehow makes you wistful. Maybe it’s late and you're the only car on a rarely used country road and it’s starting to rain and the melancholia that seems to follow you everywhere is making itself manifest.

Anyway, the songs were recorded in a random order, and then when I started playing the CDs in my stereo, I would use the stereo’s shuffle function. That’s a shuffle on top of a shuffle, if you can get your head around that. This meant that I never had a clue as to how the songs were actually ordered on the five CDs. In the past few weeks, though, for a change of pace, I’ve taken to playing the songs in the order that they were recorded.

So I’m driving from where I stay on the weekends back toward Madtown and I’m listening to one of my Road Mix CDs when I get four great songs in a row that are about four different types of heartbreak: Quiero Libertad, by The Gipsy Kings; Return of the Mack, by Mark Morrison; Wake Up, by The Arcade Fire, and Sweet Child o’ Mine, by Guns 'n Roses.

I first heard the Gipsy Kings when they came on Letterman in either '93 or '94, and what got me was the lead singer’s voice, because there’s pain there, an ocean of pain. Quiero Libertad is about a dude who wants liberty from his special lady, who doesn’t want to suffer any longer, who wants to live life, who wants to play like a child, who wants to be free like the wind. Yeah, this guy’s been worn out by this love of his that isn’t working out. We’ve all been there, and you believe that he has, too.

I first heard Mark Morrison’s Return of the Mack back in 1997, right around the time that I was finishing grad school (Huskies, can you feel me?), and I dug it and when everybody started acquiring music through alternative means (if you dig what I’m saying), this was one of the songs of which I made sure to get a hold.

Why’d this song stick in my memory? Well, first of all, it’s a great song to dance to at the clubs (even though, because I was so busy with grad school and trying to put together a future [boy, that “future thing sure didn’t go as planned], I have never actually heard that song in a club). The second reason though, is because it tells a great story.

First, though, we have to start with a little vocabulary. “What is a mack?” you may be asking. A mack is a young fellow who has great success in attracting the amorous attentions of various friendly ladies.

This former mack changed his ways to be with his special lady, but, ironically enough, his woman has lied to him and done “nasty things,” and any things that can be deemed to be nasty by a former mack must be quite nasty, indeed. Whatever you can imagine, triple it.

So now the former mack is going to go back to being a mack. The dude is hiding his pain behind this false bravado—yes, you hurt me, but there are a ton of ladies out there, and I’m going to have rigorous and pervy sex with as many of them as I can—and it’s so transparent. We know that the guy’s in pain because the first human sound we hear on this track is Morrison’s hitting a mournful, plaintive note, which is the sound that the soul makes when it’s in crisis.

Yeah, everybody’s into The Arcade Fire (but I was into them early). The thing is that they’re incredibly incredible. I’ve played the hell out of their songs because they make me so goddamn sad, but it’s a good sad. Wake Up is from Funeral, their first album, and the whole album, as you can tell from the title, is about longing and sadness and loss, and I’m all about longing and sadness loss.

Like the Morrison, the first human sound that you hear is series of long, sad notes, but in this case it’s a group of singers hitting the notes, not just one guy. This song, though, isn’t about troubles with your lady; this one’s about a kid who’s told not to cry at what I’m pretty sure is a funeral (it’s not really made that explicit, but it’s not that hard to figure out). Later on, that kid’s older and his heart’s been made “colder” by his having been told to tough it out and he sees that “it’s a lie.” The song is just full of great/borderline crushing lines:

hold your mistake up,
before they turn the summer into dust


our bodies get bigger but our hearts get torn up

we’re just a million little god’s causin’ rainstorms
turnin’ every good thing to rust


I guess we’ll just have to adjust

The first times that you hear the “rust” line, the lead singer’s voice is cracking (because the pain is painful and it’s beautiful and it’s killing him) and he’s shouting almost as much as he’s singing and you will get the shivers and you will find yourself shouting right along with him.

And then you think that it can’t possibly get any better, but here comes Guns 'n Roses. Yeah, Guns 'n Roses. Bite me, they rule. And nothing of theirs rules as much as Sweet Child o’ Mine.

Slash starts with the famous riff, Izzy starts tearing off some rocking (or rockin', if you will) power chords, Duff comes in on bass at the same time that Steven Adler starts working the cymbals before he lays down the beat on his snare and his toms and his kick drum. Axle Rose, like the singer in The Arcade Fire, goes right back to childhood, except that he gets there through the woman that he loves and his childhood seems to be more idyllic. But the childhood isn’t perfect, isn’t all “bright blue sk[ies]” because later on Rose remembers hiding from “the thunder and the rain,” and they aren’t literal, or aren’t just literal.

The woman in Sweet Child o’ Mine, like Dylan’s in Shelter From the Storm, offers safety and comfort, which sounds like a pretty good deal to me. Dylan’s song is much more complicated and goes off in many different directions, but Rose sticks with his central conceit of his lover as a giver of salvation and as a way to get back to a place and time where he felt better. Just that: better.

And then Rose hits us with one of the great existential questions: Where do we go? I don’t know, and neither does he, because he asks it a bunch of times and he never gets or gives an answer. So the song, in the end, is bittersweet, and maybe that’s all that one can hope for from one’s beloved: the bittersweet and the unanswerable and the loving and the wounded and the hopeful.

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