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In 'Rock Salt Row', Lisa Torem debates each month with another writer about a different issue in rock. In this episode, she talks with Fiona Hutchings about failed romance and songs of heartache
It starts out like a technicolor dream. Waiting for the object of your affections to call and the excitement when you’re finally together arouses all senses. You giggle to yourself on elevators remembering the special joke you’ve shared and your wardrobe just happens to match his favourite shade. Every café or bar in town reminds you of a milestone in your relationship – your first date or when you got engaged.
You find yourself running into the street one day when you think you spot his licence plate number, but as you wave enthusiastically feeling so happy that he’s decided to surprise you then you notice someone else riding shotgun or is it just the glare or reflection of the car obstructing its path? You don’t hear from him for days and then he wants to “talk.”
You get in your car and drive aimlessly as warm tears blur your vision. You don’t even know where you’re going and it doesn’t matter. You’re devastated. Everything you believed in is shattered. You relive those events that seemingly made your relationship unique, examining them through a distorted prism like an inebriated projectionist and wondering if you had just said that one right thing if you would be in this state of utter misery. But, logic will not befriend you in your current state of disbelief and madness.
In ‘Break It To Me Gently’ written by blues musician Joe Seneca with lyrics by Diane Lampert, Juice Newton, who won a Grammy for Best Female Vocalist, sings, "Break it to me gently/let me down the easy way/make me feel you still love me/if it’s just, just for one more day."
And in ‘For No One’ which appeared on the Beatles seventh album ‘Revolver’ Paul McCartney describes the heartache the protagonist feels as a once vibrant and steady relationship plummets to its death, "You want her/you need her/and yet you don’t believe her when she says her love is dead/you think she needs you/and in her eyes you see nothing/no sign of love behind the tears cried for no one/a love that should have lasted years."
Now, we can probably agree that heartache in all its universal splendour makes beautiful music. But, are there some songs that articulate this phenomenon in such a way that we can regain hope and move on? Are there songs that so accurately describe the experience that if nothing else we feel we have a compadre out there who really understands us? Does it matter how we’re told? Would it make it any easier? Finally, if we have never felt the excrutiating sting of failed romance, does it even matter which song is playing?
Are you ready to row?
I am ready Lisa!
It seems to me that songs about heartache fall into two broad categories - weeping and anger and both serve different needs within us.
If songs about falling in love are there to help us with the seduction process, heartache songs are there to give us an outlet, the words to express the way we feel.
As a jilted teenager I wailed along to all manner of break up songs from the anthem of jilted women everywhere ‘I Will Survive’ (although at times it looked doubtful) to the sugary R‘n’B of ‘Unbreak My Heart’ by Toni Braxton. But for me the one song that summed it all up and conveyed my feelings of heartbreak and sheer anger at the way I had been treated was ‘You Oughta Know’ by Alanis Morissette.
Lisa, you asked if there were songs that so accurately describe the experience that if nothing else we feel we have a compadre out there who really understands us and for me this sums the song up. In particular the lines:
"And every time you speak her name
Does she know how you told me you’d hold me?
Until you died, till you died
But you’re still alive"
"It was a slap in the face how quickly I was replaced
Are you thinking of me when you f**k her?"
A male friend of mine accused Ms. Morissette of being a man hater. "No", I replied. "She loved him so much it’s crucifying her."
At the tender age of 18 I had imagined heartbreak to be a sad, lonely place I would inhabit with dignity and gravitas. I had no idea I would love there kicking and screaming and music became the most accurate way of expressing all the feelings I was dealing with. Did it make it easier to bear? Maybe a little. After all screaming along drunkenly with Alanis gave me something to do. Her words were my words. I just didn’t know that until I heard them.
And, yes, to me it does matter which song is playing. And if you have never been in that situation then, no, I don’t believe you will 100 % ‘get it.’ Love is often seen as a very universal thing which is why there are so many songs about it. But it seems to me that the first flush of perfect, all consuming love, is a brief and rare thing. Most people are more likely to identify with fractured or broken relationships making the theme of heartache much more of a shared experience. The songs that get you through that however are as much a personal taste as any other but sometimes the ones that touch you deepest are not the ones you might expect.
In regards to Alanis, “Her words were my words. I just didn’t know that until I heard them” I think you’ve captured the essence of why music validates us. I also think that the genius of songwriting occurs when those cracks between the foundations are addressed. Some songs attempt to deal with heartache logically declaring that the heartache happened because of atrophy or neglect, more than malice or carelessness. Other songs point fingers and suggest smoking guns. I agree – we respond depending on the degree to which the heart has been trampled upon.
How very interesting it is that your friend accused Ms. Morissette of being a man hater. For what? For openly expressing feelings that might actually lead to some healing as opposed to burying them and developing an ulcer? Shall we row with this friend as well?
That’s been a long-standing issue – female writers and performers have traditionally gotten the guillotine because of ‘attitude songs.’ K.T. Oslin was guilty as charged. Who ever heard of Nancy Sinatra after ‘These Boots are Made for Walking’ – another great heart-break song.
Joni Mitchell stayed the vulnerable course and didn’t get nailed. But, ‘Green Eyed Lady’ was filled with anger and just got chalked off as a song with a great riff.
Billy Joel loves dichotomies. In ‘She’s Always A Woman’ he juxtaposes the female’s charm and cruelty. Lennon sings in ‘Girl’ that "she promises the earth to me/ and I believe her/ and I don’t regret a single day." But, he also sings about her cruelty when her two-faced persona comes into play.
When Janis Joplin sang 'Take Another Little Piece of my Heart' it was wrenching. She wasn’t criticized for her guttural performance – perhaps because she wasn’t considered an attractive female who might be a man stealer.
Lennon croons, "I’m a loser/and I’m not what I appear to be/I’m a loser and I’ve lost someone who’s dear to me" and in ‘You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away’ he sings, "Here I stand/head in hand/turn my face to the wall/if she’s gone I can’t go on/feeling two feet tall." What an amazing depiction of heartache’s debilitating residue!
I always loved Carole King’s ‘It’s Too Late’ because it had such a civilized wrap-up. She sings, "There’ll be good times again for me and for you/but we just can’t stay together, don’t you feel it, too/still I’m glad for what we had/and how I once loved you."
Of course, I imagine this is the type of song written when the break-up is completely mutual or after some time has passed. But, so much of response to heartache is fueled by our need to qualify how much we were slighted. Often, one of those involved was insensitive needlessly. But, often, love being so overpowering, does take people to places they couldn’t have imagined.
You stated, Fiona, “Sometimes the ones that touch you deepest are not the ones you might expect.” I was moved by a ballad called ‘Torn Between Two Lovers’ which was written by Phillip Jarrell and Peter Yarrow (Peter, Paul and Mary). Oddly enough, a man was supposed to have performed it. Fiona, do you know any man who would be crying his heart out if he were "torn between two lovers?" I certainly don’t.
Singer Mary McGregor ended up recording this ballad which was inspired by Boris Pasternak’s 1957 novel ‘Dr. Zhivago’ – in which a man is in love with two women. Now, let’s disregard any moral compass we may be reaching for here – I think this song articulates poor anguish. I think "heartache is heartache" once it happens regardless of the circumstance. And, I think this song captures those tragic overtones.
"There’s been another man that I’ve needed and I’ve loved/but that doesn’t mean I love you less/and he knows you can’t possess me/and he knows he never will/there’s just this empty place inside of me/that only he can fill."
"I couldn’t really blame you if you turned and walked away/but with everything I feel inside/I’m asking you to stay/Torn between two lovers/feeling like a fool/lovin’ both of you is breakin’ all the rules."
What comes to mind is Raskolnikov, the protagonist in ‘Crime and Punishment’ who after killing Ludmilla is haunted with this horrific secret and he becomes a prisoner of his own conscience. That’s why this song is so genuine as well. What can one do with a deep dark secret?
This song stems from a pull of the conscience. We’re not even sure if she’s gone ahead with the affair or is merely considering it. We can admire her for admitting her feelings to her steady beau or we can despise her for it. Either way, it makes us examine motivations – what would we do, could this happen to us? It delves into the grey areas. It shines a light on a splattered heart and makes us wonder if we can overlook our own "fences" and see through to the other side –even if for only three minutes. Colouring inside or outside of the lines – it’s still, well, heartache.
And, let’s face it. Heartbreak is a form of temporary (we hope) insanity. When Maria Muldaur sings in her fragile voice, "mad, mad, me, I love you", we melt.
That’s why some of the Americana songs are so easily dismissed. Notice, I say ‘some’ as many are masterpieces. But look at a typical example: The woman flaunts her unfaithfulness in front of the townspeople by wearing her red dress, heels and fish-nets. Think ‘Ruby’ performed by Kenny Rogers. Okay, it didn’t end this way, but just imagine - the husband gets a sawed-off shot gun and blows her head off. Okay, that’s the easy song to write. But, that’s usually not what happens.
Then there’s the Crosby,Stills, Nash and Young song ‘Love The One You’re With.’ This was a rather Woodstock-generational way of dealing with rejection – but certainly a creative one. But, then again, didn’t hippie hearts break also?
‘Love Ridden’ by Fiona Apple takes you to that place. "Nobody sees when you are lying in your bed/ and I wanna crawl in with you/but I cry instead. I want you warm but it will only make me colder/when it’s over/So I can’t tonight, baby."
‘Only kisses on the cheek from now on/and in a little while/we’ll only have to wave/My hand won’t hold you down no more/The path is clear to follow through/I stood for too long in the way of the door and now I’m giving up on you.
Apple knows that the promise of "one more night" is more of a curse given the situation. Apple knows it’s time to end the bloody mess already. She’s not new at the game..
‘I Will Survive’ was one of the greatest songs ever written. Who doesn’t remember resolving to work out at the gym seven nights a week after the guy leaves you for a runaway model or taking a class in auto mechanics so you can change your own damn tyre? No wonder it became an anthem for women the world over.
My anti-Morissette friend confused an outpouring of emotion about one person with a pronunciation on an entire gender. We can’t row with that particular individual. I’m afraid he was ditched after one too many comments in a similar vein!
So, we know that heartache isn’t just a one-sided deal either. It’s not always just about the person left behind. There are beautiful and moving songs sung from the other side of relationship break down. The person doing the leaving is not always the total bastard of Apple and Morissette. From the deceptively bitter sweetness of the ‘Beautiful South's ‘A Little Time’: "I had a little time/To think it over/ Had a little room/To work it out/I found a little courage/to call it off."
To the more angst riddled ‘Ways and Means’ of Snow Patrol: "If I lied you’d know it instantly/So I just had to look away/All the honesty I’ve ever lost/I can’t begin to even curse/I never knew the taste of blood till now/It’s clear I never should have known/Breathing fire was never this much fun/So there’s a dark side in us all."
Both songs paint scenes of love that’s died just because it has. There’s no cheating and no more room for any lies. It speaks of how painful it can be trying to remain in a relationship that has run its course and the very different type of heartache felt when you finally make the decision to leave.
If we find it easy to relate the euphoria on finding love and the deep anger and bitterness at being left, maybe this is the one we struggle with most. Knowing you have hurt someone once the most dear to you on the planet, knowing that you could stop their pain with a word or gesture, but knowing, too, that ultimately you would be lying to them and yourself and only storing up more pain in the future. Snow Patrol in particular embody this resignation and teeth-gritted attitude, not just in the musical and lyrical content but also in the wary but battling vocal delivery.
Both these songs feature a very heavy male presence, so despite the fact as two women we seem to be agreeing more than rowing, there is also a place for the male voice of heartache.
Lisa, you asked if I knew a man who would cry being torn between two women. Women, I am not sure, two loves – yes.
In fact, the most powerful song both from the ‘other side of heartache’ and from a man comes from the legendary Johnny Cash. ‘Hurt’ is at once resignation and self-knowledge: "What have I become?/my sweetest friend/everyone I know/goes away in the end/and you could have it all/my empire of dirt/I will let you down/I will make you hurt."
It seems to me that there will always be the music somewhere to salve our broken hearts why ever and how ever they happen to be broken. The song that works for us, really works, will probably continue to soothe us if or when we are heartbroken again. Songs that speak to our souls aren’t one hit wonders, not a band-aid that falls straight back off. While not strictly about heartache, Eels nailed the pain relief of music: "Life is hard/And so am I/You’d better give me something/So I don’t die/Novocaine for the soul/Before I sputter out/Before I sputter out."
Yes, Fiona, we do seem to be in agreeance. I have to add that ‘Songs that Speak to Our Souls aren’t One Hit Wonders’ could be a great album title should you decide to change careers and go in that direction. Even in this current economic downturn, I think you might have a hit here that could – at the very least – go platinum.
But, given the breadth of our discographies, heartache is evidently here to stay – swaddled in all of its gender-blind, genre-blurring affectations. Whether the lyrics are sung by a Stetson hat-wearing urban cowboy/attorney eating chili from a can or a suburban housewife who discovers a scatological letter from hubby’s mistress in the sock drawer, the mercury in the thermometer will still rise to the same sizzling level.
Heartache or heartbreak – no matter which side of beef you slash – still hangs like a buzzard-infested carcass over a bewildered mass of starving perpetrators and victims. As you said, "The person doing the leaving is not always the total bastard." But, despite all odds, the random bedraggler may once again acquire an appetite and seek out love’s incendiary kill.
That familiar blood-drawing scent has always been far too intoxicating to resist. And, even if the illustrious hunt leads to unfathomable misery, these misguided optimists can find solace in the great cauldron of songs that have both bewitched and sated humanity one bittersweet note at a time.
Lisa Torem would like to thank the following enthusiastic, wholeheartedly brave, supportive - and often boisterous - Pennyblackmusic rowers without which: 'Rock Salt Row' - (two writers season one historic moment) - could not have been successfully launched.
Many cheers to the following 2009 Rock Salt Row writers - may 2010 bring more PB rowers aboard.
Thank you all,
Fiona J. Hutchings