I haven’t cried in my adult life.
I came quite close on a train back to Barrow-In-Furness in February 1996 when I finally split up with the girl I’d been with for the previous five years but that particular remarkable and humbling day isn’t what I want to talk about now, though if we ever bump into each other feel free to ask me. No-one I love has died, I haven’t become a father, I’ve had the usual slew of minor triumphs and disappointments, none of which have seemed exceptional enough in the general tragic way of the world to justify crying.
That doesn’t mean that on the other hand I’m not an abysmal sentimentalist, that I don’t often find myself on the verge of tears. Songs do it to me, so do films, often things which aren’t very ”progressive” at all. To some extent sentiment lies at the base of all our judgements: show me an example of working class resistance/solidarity and I’ll have lump in my throat, exactly the same way some people dab their eyes when they hear the National Anthem or watch a military parade. Their tears, my sneers.
You’ll know all that stuff that gets to me from your own life.
People being brave in the face of crushing disappointment, self-awareness coming too late in the day, defiance in the face of manifest injustice, yearning for an impossible love, all the contradictory needs that pull your life out of shape, the transience of things, the awful sharp surprise of finding that people are not what they seem.
But also the consolations of laughter, love, small acts of consideration and kindness that suddenly overwhelm all your cynicism and doubt, the seemingly impossible, dream like elevation of loving and being loved, how the success of those you love is so much purer and more fulfilling than your own.
The fear that all that incremental inching forward toward happiness that you’ve made in your life will be swept away from you, the fear that you can’t control your own recklessness enough to hold your life together.
Your miserable childhood, your awkward adolescence, your confused adulthood, the way your resignation weighs on you, the secret selves you nurtured but never had the nerve to give birth to, the secret fixations and obsessions, the sudden purging bursts of confession and honesty, the astonishment that any two people can be so different or similar. The consolations and the torments of fantasy. The fear that you should have had a different life and now it’s all too late. The gratitude for having a home to return to.
You know these things, they’re not complicated, they’re basic,fundamental, the fabric of daily experience. Some people hate talking about all that, it makes them feel vulnerable I suppose, or like a failure or that it should all be dismissed in the name of higher, more esoteric concerns. As for me, I need the catharsis of a good sentimental song, a shoulder to cry on, a sympathetic ear, I need the sense of connection and identification it brings.
In this sense lyrics are important (though not essential, those exquisite peaks in Trans Europe Express will get me blubbing) as is a certain amount of storytelling in the song. Storytelling allows songs to break out of the self- pitying, whiny mode that I have to be honest leaves me cold, too much about my-tragic-life as opposed to our tragic-comic condition is likely to provoke in me nothing more than Spartan disdain (Radiohead, Keane, Coldplay). Richard Thompson is absolutely the master here, I listen to Mock Tudor or Rumour and Sigh and kind of stagger round the room, eyebrows raised clutching my chest and nodding along sympathetically: yes, yes, this man understands the human heart! Springsteen will do it to me too, the holy trinity of Darkness, Nebraska, The River, also last year’s The Promise. Pere Ubu and David Thomas and the Two Pale Boys.
But, unhip as all that is, it gets worse, there’s a ton of commercial rock and pop stuff that slays me, often just because there’s a certain condensed poetry and insight in a line or a chorus. Do I need to invoke Pope again to justify myself here: well I will. “True wit is nature to advantage dressed/what oft were thought but ne’er s o well expressed”. Often the direct, unadorned immediacy required of a pop lyric captures and expresses the keen edge of experience in a way that floridity would soften or disguise. A few examples off the top of my head…
the brilliantly aphoristic
“ Oh yeah life goes on, long after the thrill of living has gone.”
The painfully acute mini-marrative: these are probably some of the most wrenching words ever written down by a human being!!!!*
“There’s no welcome look in your eyes when I reach for you/and girl you're starting to criticize little things I do.”
The fantastically subtle modulation in narrative voice that reveals the limits of the speakers understanding about his own plight
“I got a job working construction/ for the Jonestown company/ But lately there aint been much work/ On account of the economy” (italics mine)
Now don’t get me wrong I love the ludic, wild, poetic, uncanny, modernist, cerebral and all that but I can’t live without this stuff any more than I could live without having someone to love, without being touched, encouraged, listened to, consoled, advised, helped, taught. Any more than I could live without trying to offer as much as I have of insight or generosity to others who I love and admire. We all need a bit of soothing, a bit of healing, or at least I do. I find no contradiction between loving both Springsteen and Kraftwerk, or Scarface and Galaxie 500. I wouldn’t be bold enough to claim I was vast and contained multitudes, but I am at least fairly large and contain a smallish community of selves whose gradual harmonization seems to be one of life’s fundamental tasks, and who are spoken to differently and who speak differently through me.
You just met one of them. Don’t worry, the shouty, wordy one will be back soon.
Meanwhile here’s a song that always gets to me.** And this line is a marvel. Eight words that capture an unequivocal truth, that move from the mundane and the particular, to the cosmically conciliatory, that implies a narrator whose sense of failure and injustice has been bound up in impossible aspirations, whose ego and desire for status has handicapped him, eight words that are freighted with a whole sense of a personality and a perspective, an entire life.
“An ordinary girl/ Will make the world alright.”
*It's unforgivable how Top Gun debased this towering song, innit. Then again what about Ghost and "Unchained Melody". Was there some kind of campaign to destroy the Righteous Brothers in the 80s?
**expect some horrific posts over the next few days an imagine me sitting blubbing on a Futon to all kinds of M.O.R, A.O.R and F.M. freindly abominations.