Tag Archives: london

With a Song in My Heart: B is for…

“Bitter Sweet Symphony” – The Verve, 1997.

Back when I was still playing around with what kind of blog I was looking to write, and fancying part of myself a frustrated successor to Lester Bangs, I did a pretty comprehensive review of The Verve’s Urban Hymns album, which you can read here.  That of course was a clinical discussion of the music’s technical merits with little space given to personal reflection.  What I didn’t get into was how that album and this song in particular clobbered me out of a fog of complacency like an electric sledgehammer in 1997.

After my mother succumbed to cancer in the early spring of 1995, leaving my sister and I orphaned teenagers, I spent months trying to figure out who I was and what the hell I was going to do now.  A little more on this “lost weekend” period when we get to the “O” song in a few weeks, but suffice to say it was months spent reeling, wallowing, sinking into a mire out of which I had no desire to climb, while faking a smile for the cameras and for the benefit of friends and family I did not want to see me as an inconsolable basket case.  I hid away in my garret of an apartment and wrote screenplays.  They were formless, profanity-heavy treatises of obvious anger and guilt, the only way I knew how to process the turmoil in my brain and the rift in my heart.  From the comfortable perch of twenty years’ distance I can laugh at them as examples of Graham’s Emo Period, to be sequestered forever in the Vault of Bad Ideas, but back then they were my lifeline, as was the non-Internet capable computer I was writing them on.  If nothing else, they helped me become a much faster typist, as my fingers had to learn to keep up with the gushing wellspring of angst.

“Bitter Sweet Symphony,” as Verve fans know, is layered on a sample of an orchestral version of the Rolling Stones’ “The Last Time.”  I heard it for the first time while visiting my sister up at her university one weekend.  Having only a few soundtrack CD’s in my collection at the time, relying too much on a shoebox full of old mixtapes and being somewhat phobic of the radio, I wasn’t hearing much that was new, or, at least, non-orchestral.  But like so many others I was arrested instantly by the bold, melancholy string motif that introduces the song in a gentle crescendo, building to the moment Richard Ashcroft opens his mouth and lets the words pour out in a soulful torrent.  His first message isn’t terribly enlightened, or optimistic for that matter:  “Trying to make ends meet, you’re a slave to money then you die.”  Indeed, I’ve read more than one review that has dismissed the lyrics as trite.  But as the strings continue to bow, the drums pound and the song evolves toward its multi-tracked vocal coda, something clicks.  As does the now-infamous music video, featuring the sullen Ashcroft walking a London street, so single-minded of purpose and destination he bumps into everyone he passes and ignores the young woman he flattens.

Being “a million different people from one day to the next” is rather what is expected of us in what can often be a bittersweet life, isn’t it.  Be the husband, the father, the best friend, the professional, the stranger, the lover, the fighter, the poet, the misanthrope, the shoulder, the cold shoulder.  Somewhere in that mass of contradictions, the cacophonous throng of a million different people, we find the truth of who we are, and it shifts like sand beneath our feet blown by the west wind.  In 1997, “Bitter Sweet Symphony” was proclaimed an anthem, and for me, it still is.  I could recognize that although the place I was in was dark, it was not eternal, and that at some point the skies would lighten and the dawn would break, because there is that next day, and the opportunity to be another of the million different people – a better one.

Of Dickens and dancing

One is known for penetrating insight into the human condition, the other for a sublime figure and captivating dance moves. If you think you know which is which, you obviously never saw Dickens do a tango.

February 7, 2012, is the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens.  The best of times, or the worst of times?  One wonders if Dickens, who died thirty years before the turn of the 20th Century, would be pleased to know that his stories and characters are remembered well into an era he could not have conceived, yet arguably might have found a home in.  You don’t have to have read his entire catalogue, or even a single volume of his works to know names like Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Nicholas Nickleby, the Artful Dodger, Miss Havisham, Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay, and perhaps most notably, Jacob Marley, Tiny Tim and Ebenezer Scrooge.  As I’ve observed before, how we celebrate Christmas today is largely the result of how Dickens portrayed it.  Dickensian is a familiar adjective that conjures immediately an idealized image of the grand old city of London, his everlasting muse.  Stylistically, Dickens was a master of character, an expert wielder of the cliffhanger.  Socially, he was a champion of the poor, an advocate of justice and a relentless believer in the capability of good to triumph over evil.  Story was his sword, and with it he carved himself a legacy still seen in the most popular fiction of today – particularly that which celebrates the underdog and his fight against overwhelming odds.

The romanticism of the Dickensian tale resonates to this day, I believe, because he recognized that we all crave that same heightened sense of adventure in our own lives.  Edyta Śliwińska of Dancing with the Stars fame, in discussing the various failed relationships that had sprung up between celebrities and partners during the course of the show, cannily observed their failure to know the difference between intense attraction and a lasting emotional connection – the mistaking, as it were, of movie love for real love.  Fictional romances, whether on the screen or in printed pages, are a powerful narcotic because of their savvy manipulation of the universality of emotions.  We want to be swept off our feet in slow motion to the swell of orchestral strings and walk into the sunset of the happily ever after.  It is not that our real lives are less interesting – far from it when closely examined – but we are drawn in by the heightened and artificial reality of the story.  The natural ebbs and flows of relationships are compressed into 90 minutes, the sweet moments escalated into diabetic fits of ecstasy.  In the story you don’t see the sitting up at three a.m. worrying while your partner squats noisily on the toilet, and any screaming matches usually only happen in the last third of the second act; once the screen goes to black and the credits roll, all is right in the world forever and evermore.  Real love is messy, and angry, and hurtful, even hateful at times.  But it is real, and unlike the movie, it is lasting.

Why then, do we still want the storybook version?  It is perhaps a gut reaction to the madness of the world outside, an existential search for meaning in the face of suffering.  I choose to see it as a case for optimism about the nature of humanity.  Like all of nature’s creatures we are designed for survival at all costs, often by the cruellest methods available to us.  Yet paradoxically we are still drawn toward the positive, the sense of anticipation of the prosperous future.  We hunger for the reassurance of the triumph of good against evil no matter what the stakes, or the cost.  Charles Dickens knew it, and could translate that longing into characters and tales into which we could invest ourselves.  That, I think is the key to Dickens’ lasting appeal – the nurturing of that tiny flame which continues to burn in every human heart, no matter how downtrodden, how wracked with despair at seemingly unending misery.  The longing for the light.  The everlasting sense of hope.

And I’m told he had great legs too.

The Stormy Present

Towards the end of his second State of the Union address, Abraham Lincoln said, “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.”  That quote has been at the forefront of my mind for the last few days.  Lincoln was trying to rally a Union divided against itself and suggesting that they needed a new way of thinking.  Basically telling them that everything you think you know is wrong – that the old solutions aren’t going to cut it.

The stock market is collapsing.  The U.S. Congress is beholden to corporations and morons wrapped in the flag.  Extreme right-wing governments are readying the knife to slash the social safety net to ribbons.  The planet is cooking and scientists desperate to reverse it are mocked, slandered and defunded.  Intellectuals are feared and ignorance is lauded.  The Mayor of Toronto wants to close libraries.  And the great city of London is on fire.  The present is not just stormy – it’s an all-out hurricane.

Right now, a guy I used to play in a marching band with named Steve Gaul is attempting to break the world record for marathon drumming.  He survived testicular cancer and lost his sister to paranasal cancer just last year.  He’s doing this to raise money and awareness and you can check him out (and donate) at www.beatstobeatcancer.com.  The record is 120 hours and as I’m writing this he just passed 105.  I have to confess to a bit of cynicism about cancer research.  There seems to be an awful lot of money raised for it every year and precious little progress made in treatment methodology – and the real pessimist side of me notes that we’ve never heard about a pharmaceutical company executive who’s died of cancer (happy to be corrected on this point if anyone out there knows something I don’t.)

But watching Steve is amazing.  Even though we were in the same band for three years, I never knew him very well.  He was the leader of our percussion section when I first signed up and was known for his endless reserve of “guy walks into a bar” jokes shared with the group before we stepped off on parade.  I didn’t know until I stumbled upon the site mentioned above that he had survived cancer at so young an age.  As I remember him he wouldn’t have struck me as the guy who would have this kind of fight in him.  But there he is.  105 hours in, still smiling and laughing, jamming away to an endless soundtrack of rock classics.  My wife was telling me today that even though she’s never met Steve, she’s proud of him and what he’s doing.  So am I.  Here’s a guy staring into the gale and saying “bring it on.”

The world kinda sucks right now.  We can admit that.  It feels like the bad guys are winning.  The field of Republican candidates running to run against President Obama next year is a terrifying group cut from the Greg Stilson cloth whom one could easily imagine pushing the nuke button at God’s command.  Canada gave a majority government to a guy who thought George W. Bush was the bee’s knees, and we put a redneck doofus in charge of our most progressive and cosmopolitan city.  We could really use a victory right now.

Steve Gaul is proving that the victory lies with us as individuals.  Sometime around 8am tomorrow morning he’s going to break the record.  He’s going to smash it to bits.  Kick its ass.  Make us stand up and cheer.  Make us ask what we can do and dare us to do better.  Because the old way of sitting back and waiting for the storm to pass isn’t working.

Beyond the stormy present lies the clear skies of the future.  We can get there.  We know the way.  We just need to start walking.