This is a series I’ve thought about for years (around four), and the idea is, artistic works that actually changed the way I approached what I do, how I thought or felt. Many of these are not particularly well-known.
I have hesitated to start this series because I am frankly admitting how much of what I do is consciously derivative, in some sense. However, as I posted elsewhere yesterday, being unoriginal doesn’t mean you have nothing worth saying, as long as you say it honestly.
Each one of these has a story that goes with it, of course, and I will tell those in as much detail as seems appropriate. – S.B.
I was twenty years old, and she was nineteen. She was a singer, and lived with her father in a fabulous house on the beach. Her parents were recently divorced; and her father was gone months at a time in the oil business.
The first night I spent with her at that house was more of a graduation for me than anything I went through at the end of high school or college. She was (by my standards) wild; and she poured herself into everything with more passion than I had ever witnessed first-hand.
We had gotten to know each other on a tour bus; we were at different colleges, but the two schools had a joint traveling chorale we each belonged to; she, the future professional singer, and me, the amateur crasher from the mathematics school.
On that bus, where we were for ten days, she listened to a lot of music she shared with me. One of her greatest passions, at that time, was the music of James Taylor, who I was of course familiar with, but not to level of fandom she was. The “JT” album was something like 5 years old at that time, but that was one of two she listened to repeatedly at that period, and as we got more into each other, I listened to it, too.
I only knew one song from that album, but it had been, previously, my favorite James Taylor tune, “Handyman”. As I got to know the other songs on the album, each one spoke to me in that way music does when it is just the right music at just the right time in your life.
One song, in particular, struck me, listening to it at that fabulous two story house overlooking the Gulf of Mexico on a spring morning with the windows open and drapes blowing slowly in the breeze:
When I feel as though my love is sinking down,
The sun doesn’t want to shine —
When it feels like she won’t face another day,
Life is unkind, she’s frozen in time —
And here comes another grey morning.
A not so good morning after all.
She says “well, what am I to do today
With too much time
And so much sorrow.”
She hears the baby waking up downstairs.
She hears the foghorn calling out across the sound.
Repetition in the morning air
Is just too much to bear,
And no one seems to care.
If another day goes creeping by
Empty and ashamed,
Like an old unwanted memory
That no one will claim —
The clouds with their heads on the ground,
She’s gonna have to come down.
She said “Move me, move me,
I’m locked up inside.”
Well, I didn’t understand her
Though God knows I tried.
She said “Make me angry,
Just make me cry.
But no more grey morning,
I think I’d rather die.”
Three things about the song struck me. The first was, this song seems to be at least partly about postpartum depression. A male singer-songwriter, writing and singing about the feelings of a woman facing depression was a new thing to me, and was fairly new in 1977 when the song came out.
Secondly, and I might be imagining this, the song seems to be implying some sort of affair being initiated at the end, as the woman in the song seems desperate to feel — well, anything other than depression.
Finally, the song is through-composed as opposed to strophic, that is to say, it doesn’t follow the neat, verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus form of so many popular songs. The form seems to have been dictated by the content. It also ends in a musically ambiguous position (i.e., not on the tonic chord).
I loved this song, and learned to play and sing it, which I have done (every so often) ever since. In addition, the idea of trying to describe what women who I have known might be feeling in songs and poetry didn’t seem like a complete absurdity or insult after hearing this song. The song takes an ambiguous perspective, and shapes it’s form as necessary to keep the feeling — all of these are devices I’ve used, consciously, in some measure due to my reaction to artistry of the song.
The woman I was dating then went on to a successful career as a professional opera singer; we are Facebook friends now, both married with kids. I’ll always be grateful to her for that time in my life, even though I’m not entirely sure she quite remembered who I was when I first reached out to her, memory being, of course, one of life’s great asymmetries.