Wish you were here

Note on: chance happenings and music interpretation. (New “note” format briefly discussed here).

A project which seems very worth starting: an account of how music analysis not only “doesn’t occur in a vacuum” in terms of social and political context and fact, but also is insanely coloured by mood and condition of listening.

Because this is the truth, there is still a “procedural bifurcation” as Kramer suggests, between impersonal literary-critic-style analysis, and sociological studies of habits. And there must be room for an (auto)ethnographic, analytical niche in the middle, which embraces emotional reactions to specific songs *and their meanings*.

Today it was the intuition, hearing the guitar solo at the start, that “Wish You Were Here” is so sloppy and erotic, like a tall man languishing, so much potency and idleness. A semiotic likeness to “Time”, when you look at your present from a weird, outside perspective? Certainly that is the lead role in the cage. The feeling of “lovesick” because of missing whoever it is, who can bring purpose to someone’s life. Some degree of obsession too maybe, intense focus on whoever it is. And so you “fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way”, even if you are supposed to be doing something else that is in fact quite urgent.


open letter to david (bowie)

Now that you are back at your home in the sky,

I hope that you have found a place just as unsettling as you are – I imagine you, poised between two stars, unsure which of you three is about to explode next (but it will definitely be you: the question is when). And there you have it: your critical confoundedness is epitomised in that last sentence that I wrote. You are so mercurial that the amount you change has become a cliche in itself. Critics will not shut up about your ‘constant reinvention’, but when will they reinvent themselves?

The problem is, David Bowie, you have put us all in a quandary. With your quicksilver changes what is there of you really to latch onto? For surely there has to be a fragment of embarrassingly simple person poking around the edges of your many personae, in order for us to like or love you. You are a Magical Mister Mistoffelees, where we watch fabulous stunts – we may even remark, ‘Oh, well I never, was there ever a cat [man] so clever as…?’ – but little of ‘the real you’ is visible. Oh, and believe me, I am as sceptical as any existentialist about the ‘true self’ even existing; but there has to be something at least relatively consistent and physical about a person.

And yet the name Mistoffelees also hints at perhaps some devilish magic (like Mephistopheles in Doctor Faustus) that really does set you apart and, paradoxically, show some strange, androgynous consistency; and perhaps that is what we look for. Unlike real men and women you are the figure of the artist par excellence, showing some kind of delight (deadpan and unemotional as it seems to be) in constant evanescence. Dark and devoid of personality, like Jimmy Page perhaps, it is surprisingly humble that you do this: we do at least have a lot to study. Without really focusing on you as a person we can at least look at your work. That is unusual for a rock star.

Sure enough, throughout the day when we heard that you were dead, it was when your songs were played, to which I knew all the lyrics, that I felt like I could come in from the cold and finally play a role in mourning. You, the Blackstar: as everyone seems to be quoting, ‘Something happened on the day he died/ Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside/ Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried (I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar)’. I would read the lines as saying something like – someone else longs to die and go to (dark) heaven more than you, and takes your place. In the end, though, it points again to identity being unimportant, except from song to song; it is performance and communication in the moment that matters. From the lovable daddy of ‘Kooks’ to the musical theatre star of ‘Five Years’, to the psychedelic, sickly singer in ‘Heroes’. Your voice is irreducibly distinct, across most of these; another trace of you which remains, despite the constant changes. But what does it matter, when each of the songs leaves such an imprint?

When we talk of the constant changes of the Blackstar we are right; but really, we are getting it wrong. As a true dramatist you didn’t want us to look at the man behind the masks. That is why, what I would call your ‘king’ character, the slightly demonic, elusive magician who weaves into your many other authoritarian, mischievous roles, does not exactly seem pleased to meet us when we poke out our fingers to grab hold of him. You’re an introverted alternative to the ‘good actor’ model, who, like the Blackstar, looks not to himself but to the plot as providing truths. The problems of your slightly scary, exalted kind of solitariness do not go away by saying this, but you do pose an interesting question to us now. Why do we obsess so much over people and ‘personality’? And is there anything to learn, in a post-reformation, psychoanalytic age, from your calling us to look beyond the factual person to fictions alone as places to find solace and refuge? Perhaps we ought to thank you, for helping us let go.

soundtrack to shakespeare

John Donne wasn’t keen on setting literature to music –

‘I am two fools, I know,/ For loving, and for saying so/ In whining poetry’.

… and the man who sets this whining to music makes him a triple fool. But in my humble opinion this was probably because Renaissance music wasn’t up to much.

In relative seriousness, though, I think that a lot of modern pop songs suit the moods of Shakespeare’s plays extremely well.

If the pop literature of that day had pop songs to go with it from today – this has been my little game for the last few months – I’m sure JD would have loved it. I have studied an awful lot of Shakespeare this year.

How about:

(youtube playlist, where all the songs can be found in order)


William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Aqualung, Strange and Beautiful

It’s amazing how sweet and down-to-earth this song makes an absolute pervert seem. Or, it’s a desperate, imaginative attempt to cope with the bitterness of rejection. Both, I think, are what Oberon feels about Titania all along.

Sir Philip Sidney, The Old Arcadia – Nina Simone, I Put a Spell on You

I know, I know, the train of thought wasn’t hard from the last song to this. But try reading all these texts! The kind of spell and spellgiver this song gives is different to the last; angst is multiplied by 800 and suddenly everything is stifled by a more heavy and poisonous lovesickness, because the spells are all in the sinister, clingy spirit of GYNECIA – like all of Sidney’s lovers in this story.

Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, Book III – Kate Bush, Constellation of the Heart

My mind is humming with this backwards-playing, dizzying introspection; it’s a bit like being overcome by bees. I’m sure that’s what Spenser would have wanted with his introspective story of magical crystal balls, penetrating pens, trees growing out of women and women growing out of trees.

William Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale – Tori Amos, Silent All These Years

The Winter’s Tale is the saddest of the romances, and this song is one of the saddest songs of all time – both because they don’t seem to try to be. ‘sometimes I hear my voice, and it’s been here… silent all these years’.

William Shakespeare, The Tempest – Ellie Goulding, The Writer

In truth this song could go with nearly all these romances/comedies because so much is about the male characters ‘writing’ women. Perhaps Prospero is the ultimate ‘writer’/controller figure. Ellie Goulding doesn’t seem to mind giving up her animation to a man – neither does Miranda, and maybe even Hermione. Good sports, aren’t they?



Christopher Marlowe, Tamburlaine (1 and 2) – Bat for Lashes, Oh Yeah

I do love the childish boldness of naming a character ‘Zenocrate’. This song rivals Marlowe in ostentatious exoticism. Mildly vulgar but deeply thrilling. Tragedy? NAAH.

William Shakespeare, Macbeth – Lana del Rey, Off to the Races

Oh all right, I’ll go with the tacky ambitious Lady Macbeth and pair her with Lana del Rey. This song does sound a bit like something between nausea and dizziness, but Macbeth is nightmarish too. The bit where Lana del Rey starts talking about ‘red nail polish’ is suitably spruce and rhythmic for Lady M. But the Macbeths would suit blues music too, softer and more vulnerable.

John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi – Jessie Ware, Night Light

Unfortunately Jessie Ware thinks that ghosts are blind – but this harsh-sounding song is, like Webster’s play, ‘Too much in the dark’, secret and frightened. She also sounds sinisterly spied-upon, like the Duchess. Is the watcher her lover or her stalker?!

Thomas Middleton, The Changeling – David Bowie, Heroes

This is a generous interpretation of The Changeling, and I did at first just want to keep it because it flows on well from the last song. But its sound does match the horrid stifledness of the play’s central relationships, its emphasis on love crossing repressive social borders, and the sense of the madhouse.

Thomas Middleton, Women Beware Women Madonna, Material Girl

Cheap, horrid and a lot of fun. I bet Bianca does have a squeaky voice like Madonna’s. Good for her. ‘Experience has made me rich, and now they’re after me’ – Livia?

William Shakespeare, Coriolanus – P. J. Harvey, The Glorious Land

This song is super-English, and Coriolanus is the most Roman of Shakespeare’s Roman plays. But still not that Roman, because this song, with its hard, militaristic beat, its patriotism, and its description of ‘our glorious country’ being ‘ploughed by tanks and feet’, ‘Not with wheat and corn’, sounds a lot like this proud lump of a warrior and his starving antagonists.

William Shakespeare, King Lear – Laura Mvula, Diamonds

Lear’s a twin with Coriolanus in many ways, I think. If both plays were a colour both would be green. Both start off hard nuts and both probably have diamonds in their hearts. But Lear goes through a specially soft, oozy bit with Cordelia that qualifies him better for this song. People are sacred, worth more than meets the eye, all over this play.

William Shakespeare, Hamlet – Kate Bush, Reaching Out

I was so pleased when I found this, late in the game – like most of my thoughts on Hamlet. I thought it reflected Hamlet’s spiritual anguish and hope when I heard the chorus at first, but the Gertrude camp would have a ball with this song too, since it ascribes much or all of this glory to The Mother. It’s not surprising that KB has a double hit on this blog. She’s definitely mad enough for the Renaissance. Legend.