Tag Archives: I’ve Got You Under My Skin

With a Song in My Heart: Y is for…

“Your Song” – Elton John, 1970.

Kids these days (ugh) probably don’t know what a B-side is.  Well, young’uns, back in the dark ages of analogue music, songs were released on these archaic, dinner plate-shaped things called records, which, unlike their later brethren the CD, could be played on a mind-blowing TWO sides, helpfully labeled A and B for quick reference.  “B-side” was generally bandspeak for “throwaway”:  when a band put out a single they’d usually stick some filler or weird experimental crap on the B-side, fated to be swiftly forgotten by all but hipsters and pretentious music critics.  Elton John’s “Your Song” is that rare example of when the B-side outshone the ostensible hit.  Released in 1970 as the backing track for the single “Take Me to the Pilot,” the DJs of the day decided they liked “Your Song” better and put it in heavy rotation instead.  It’s arguably the most beautiful piece of music ever created by the songwriting duo of Elton John and Bernie Taupin, and was praised by none other than John Lennon as the best thing done in rock following the breakup of the Beatles (never one for modesty was he).  Interestingly enough, Elton John has suggested in interviews that he took only about half an hour to write it.  Not bad for something banged out over a tea break, n’est-ce-pas?

What I’ve always liked about “Your Song,” and what I suppose appeals most to my nature, is the modest, insecure manner in which the lyrics shuffle themselves forward.  This isn’t the kind of bravado and boasting about wealth and sheer awesomeness we’d see in say, gangsta rap.  Instead, the singer is apologetic at his lack of money, offering the usual empty promises about what he would buy for his love if only he could afford it.  Then, he can’t even decide what hypothetical successful person he wants to be – “If I was a sculptor, but then again, no, or a man who makes potions in a traveling show.  I know it’s not much, but it’s the best I can do.”  In life, love demands confidence, but the shy still feel it and burn with it and need it as much as anyone else.  As he struggles on, the singer complains about getting the verses wrong and not even being able to remember the color of his love’s eyes, asserting only that they are the sweetest he has ever seen.  The chorus, too, pleads for reassurance that the object of the affections doesn’t mind this grossly inadequate tribute, which in the end can but say simply “how wonderful life is while you’re in the world.”

When you style yourself a writer, or indeed, any kind of artist, there is something of an unconscious expectation among others that you should be able to express yourself flawlessly in each moment.  That you should be a boundless reservoir of wisdom concerning the human heart, that you should be able to navigate relationships with the ease and skill of an emotional Magellan, and moreover, always know exactly what to write on a birthday card.  In fact, I have lost track of the number of serious conversations I’ve been in where I have sat dumbfounded and dumbstruck and totally without words, and come away thinking there was something wrong with me, unable to reconcile the contradiction of being adept in one medium of language and inept in another.  So too do I find that when I’m trying to reassure my loved ones or my dearest friends in a difficult moment my platitudes sound to me like bad soap opera lines that have been translated from Mandarin Chinese via Czech, Swahili and Esperanto.  There was a point in my twenties when it felt like everyone was coming to me for advice on some matter or another, though I wasn’t sure where I got the guru reputation.  The best I could do would be to recycle something I heard or read and hope that it fit the occasion.  Wisdom is a quality I’ve never perceived in myself; rather, I’m like the narrator in “Your Song,” stumbling about in the dark, only ever by happenstance finding words that fit.  My idle fantasy of giving a TED talk one day seems destined to remain just that.  Dammit.

My wife and I met at a karaoke bar, and we used to go to that same one every couple of weeks when we were first dating.  “Your Song” was heavy on my performance rotation, along with “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” (the first song she ever heard me sing) and a few of the others who’ve found their way into this series of posts.  (Also “Love Shack,” but that’s another story.)  “Your Song” was my favorite to sing to her, however, and it remains in the opinion of your humble narrator the greatest love song for the tongue-tied.  It also happens, in my case, to be true – my wife’s pale, enchanting blues are indeed the sweetest eyes I have ever seen.  Love songs like this one resonate most because they are surrogates that let us speak the emotions we can’t articulate ourselves, directly and without distraction, cutting right to the unburdened clarity of one person’s passion for another.  We often can’t say – or sing – it better.  Though I’ve never fancied being a sculptor or a snake oil huckster, this song fills that slot for me.  It’s a good reminder at those instances of awkward flailing that I remain one of the better B-sides, a person of deep feeling, though my inability to speak such things aloud can make me seem in person to be cold, verging on Vulcan, as if the heart beats only at the basic task of pumping blood.  That blood, however, runs hot.  And I hope you don’t mind if I put it down in words.

There’s a bathroom on the right

John Lennon’s handwritten lyrics to “In My Life”

Song lyrics have been on my mind a lot the last few days.  I’ve told you about how my father could recite the lyrics of every classic rock song ever written, even if sometimes his interpretation of what was being sung was somewhat out there.  In fairness to him, he certainly wasn’t unique in his lyric dyslexia, as anyone who’s ever scrunched their eyebrows to “Louie Louie” can attest.  (The FBI investigated the song for several years in the 60’s to try and determine if it was obscene – your tax dollars at work, folks.)  In an era where written verse has retreated to the obscure, impenetrable domain of the hipster, music lyrics are our most accessible form of poetry.  The trouble is, the stuff that is the most popular tends to function on a level no more complicated than “Roses are red, violets are blue.”  It is as though there has been a collective decision that nobody’s listening to what’s being sung, so it doesn’t matter what the words are.  The trouble is, blandness and vapidity doesn’t just drag the song itself down – it diminishes all of music.

Recently, I was struck by a verse from a song that you’ve heard if you saw The Adjustment Bureau – “Future’s Bright,” by film composer Thomas Newman and Richard Ashcroft.  Presented for your consideration:  “When Icarus fell from the sky, the plough still turned the field and the child still cried.”  The song isn’t the greatest ever written, nor is this the most inspiring lyric ever growled by a semi-obscure Brit alt-rocker.  But it’s stuck with me regardless, I think because it is at the least an attempt at poetry inside a very commercial product.  It’s plain language, but still evokes strong imagery and draws allusion to classical myth – challenging the listener, in effect, to find out who Icarus was and why his fall is significant, particularly in the context of the greater message about the optimism inherent in looking forward at a life filled with possibility.  How refreshingly old-fashioned, when the lion’s share of popular music these days seems devoted to discussing the shapely undulations of a female’s hind parts in da club.

Elvis Costello said recently that his favourite couplet in all of music was Cole Porter’s line from “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”:  “Use your mentality, wake up to reality.”  My personal favourite is Paul McCartney’s famous closing statement, “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make” – an incomparably beautiful, spiritual, philosophical reflection on the meaning of life, one whose genius even the compliment-stingy John Lennon was able to admit.  Both songs come from an era where more was expected from music.  There has always been an element of sales and the view of songs strictly as product, particularly in the halcyon days of Tin Pan Alley, but it seems to me that writers just used to try harder.  These days?  Three writers to declare “Pedicures on our toes, toes, trying on all new clothes, clothes, boys blowing up our phones, phones” and then misspell the Kesha song’s title, “Tik Tok.”  (Were we under the mistaken impression beforehand that pedicures could be applied to the elbow?)  It took nine writers – nine independent minds, collaborating, just ponder that for a second – to string together the pronouncement, “Don’t be fooled by the rocks that I got, I’m still, I’m still Jenny from the Block.”  Yet it only took Freddie Mercury to write all of “Bohemian Rhapsody.”  Whiskey Tango Foxtrot indeed.  When did it become acceptable to settle for so much less?

Don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of great songwriters out there still giving their all and trying desperately to earn space on the radio alongside Selena Gomez declaring over and over, in a blinding flash of self-referential insight, that she loves you “like a love song, baby.”  No doubt in the classical music era there were a hundred failed composers for every Mozart or Beethoven.  The difference between then and now, is that the democratization of media – as beneficial as it is in some respects – has led to the mediocre stuff attaining heights of popularity deserved only by the brilliant.  The hacks of the 18th Century music scene are long and deservedly forgotten.  Rebecca Black got a music career in spite of, and in fact because of being dreadful.  We can’t blame the artists (or wannabes) for this, as much as we may feel like stabbing out our ears with icepicks rather than endure Bieber whining “baby, baby,” one more time.  We’re the ones who decided to stop demanding better – we decided that French fries were preferable to vichyssoise, regardless that the musical equivalent of saturated fat does nothing but make our brains lethargic and stupid.

Part of the fun of trying to figure out the lyrics of some of those older songs was the premise that whatever was being warbled beneath overdubs of guitar and keyboard was something worth discovering.  Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising,” the gold standard for misheard lyrics along with Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze,” is a rollicking, foot-tapping number whose words, while straighforward, still manage to function on the level of metaphor.  You can at least sense that there is an inquisitive mind behind the syllables, not a soulless, management-appointed committee more interested in demographics than saying anything substantial.  That’s why no one really cares that much what “Hey Mister DJ, come pon de replay” means.  It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it, but it’s not one you’ll ever want to sing to yourself in the shower.