Monday, October 11, 2010

Old Unfinished Draft Fragment Lach's "From A Quiet Distance"

Back in April of 2009 if one is to go by "date modified" on the file, I started this, which I may indeed have to complete, when I myself get to see things from a quiet distance. In the meantime it stands fragmentary, incomplete, but here it is cut and pasted. Be warned I haven't even reread it,

Lach just posted an "Exegesis" of his song George At Coney -- It is very interesting and I made some supplementary comments there.

It brought to mind the Exegesis I did for Mike Baglivi's "Frank Sinatra and Nuclear War" which can be found at

In that piece I applied an old method of biblical exegesis to the song, just to see if I could. It actually worked. This is nothing new, Dante himself writes of these various levels of meaning in poetry. The levels of meaning are basically the literal (or historical) the allegorical (referring or standing for other things or realities) the moral, and the anagogical (which relates to our final end).

Looking at a song in this way is obviously not necessary, and it may not even work for most songs. Nor is it sufficient since there are certain types of references to or echoes of other songs and poetry which contribute to our enjoyment of the song, but which do not seem to fit those four exegetical categories.  Still, they are a fun tool to use, as one seeks the reasons for one's judgment that a song is of value.

There are other considerations about these four categories and the fact that they seem to work so well which I will not bore you with right now.  This post will be in the main the output of the Explicator portion of J.J. Hayes's Amazing Antifolk Explicator and Philosophic Analyzer. Stay tuned for the other output, which you may of course interpret as a warning...

I decided, sitting on the porch and smoking I did, thinking about George At Coney whether I could perhaps apply some of these tools in uncovering hidden treasure in one of my favorite Lach songs-- A Quiet Distance. Only this morning, and much to my surprise, as I listened to that song did it occur to me that indeed there is a hidden anagogical component which I suspect was intentional, if only because Lach is a fine wordsmith and knowing craftsman. But if he didn't do it intentionally, still that part of the artist's brain that does not function consciously did it, so it is still his product for which he should get credit. and no mere lucky coincidence. Here there is my Explication, Exegesis if you will of A Quiet Distance:

My dad yells at newspapers
Ranting about the
Knicks and Nixon

On a literal level this is just a wonderful summation and evocation of New York in the Seventies.  (The Philosophic Analyzer asks: is it not mysterious that such word play as "Knicks and Nixon" can evoke a whole time and place? To which the Explicator replies, yes indeed but it is the Dad yelling at the papers that really evokes the kitchen tables of thousands of homes in those days.) The allegorical and moral meaning of this image will be revealed in time by the songwriter himself.

I complain about poets
who choke me with

We do not know what poets the singer is referring but the present tense being parallel with the first three lines indicates that it too is sometime in the seventies. Here we have a household with the father yelling at newspapers, one form of the printed word, while the son complaining about another form of the printed word.  Like father like son. The yelling at newspapers is a manifestation of frustration, our inability to control events, and one can feel the same frustration in a perhaps incipient artist facing an artistic world where following the correct rules is so stifling and yet it is offered as "the way things are."

Everyone’s pointing fingers
But I'd rather be
Getting messy colors dripping on my hands

These lines fill out and bring to a close the opening scene of the song.  There is that nice turn from "pointing fingers" to "finger painting" similar to the turn Lach uses in George at Coney-- "walking the boardwalk bored of the big talk".  The mention of the fingerpainting that delightful childhood exercise, really seems to solidify the feeling that this scene is a childhood scene.  The adults are off pointing fingers and yelling in the other room, while the singer as child just wants away from all of it. But in some way these lines at first seem to contradict the previous complaint about poets choking the singer with correctness.  That initially sounds like the complaint of someone already embarking on a poetical career--someone in high school, perhaps college. On the other hand one can imagine a much younger child, one still fingerpainting who is being forced to write rhymed poetry in school, but that doesn't quite hold up either.

No, I think this scene hold best together in the imagination as the poet/artist in adolescence or even older reading the various finger pointing wars of poets about the correct way, politically and otherwise (I think that the word correctness is so associated with political correctness that this must be the prime meaning but it is not the only one.
This artist gets the feeling that art isn't about correctness or rules but will be found somewhere in the simple childlike joy of  "getting messy colors dripping on my hands."
Here of course the "everyone's pointing fingers" can be heard as I think it is usually as meaning everyone else, but that I don't think is sustainable except as an expression of the emotion we all have felt at one time or other. It is not sustainable because the singer has already implicated himself in finger pointing by complaining about the poet's who choke him in parallel with his dad pointing fingers as he yells at the newspaper.

This is perhaps the allegorical and the moral. For the first two images the father and son, the newpapers and poets are revealed in some way to mean just what the singer says-- they mean everyone, and listener beware, not everyone else.  Complaining about the state of the nation, the NBA or the arts. The whirl of all this finger pointing, set as it is in the home, bring the singer to long for the whirl of fingerpainting, that time when one's fascination with color and the love of mess has yet to be suppressed. I am not sure that there is a moral level here in the sense we often associate with it namely moral judgment. But insofar as these characters stand for us all, and the singer as an artist trying to extricate himself, if only from the pressure and the racket of it all, it does raise a moral question of sorts.  The singer says he'd "rather be finger painting"-- its literally a statement of emotional preference not a even a judgment about the sources of art. But it raises the question of the proper way to be, the best way to proceed. That I think counts as a moral level.

[The above may sound forced, for it is not what we normally call allegorical, and yet the value of these exegetical tools is not that one hews rigorously to the correct definition thereof, but that one wonders about these things. I wonder for instance if the fact that we can see ourselves or all human beings in the poetic representation of particular human beings does not in some way count as allegory-- for the original use of that term perhaps referred to more spiritual items and a reference to common human nature in a time when such is denied, seems to partake more of allegory in that sense-- a sense by the way which was never meant to be fictitious. We also use the term allegory to refer to fictititious creations which refers to actual persons or historical realities, but the key commonality here is that the word, sentence, song or story which we take as allegorical refers to something in the users mind which is real. We just happen to consider spiritual matters less real than those who originally hit upon these categories of exegesis. And I actually happen to think there is a reality for which the best description I can think of now is common humanity, so I stand by my usage as being an example of something which does what allegory does.]

Home for the
and my friends are getting famous
I try on emotions
like I try on
clothes from storage

There is a flow to these lines that I really dig. I think part of its effect is in these internal rhymes or assonances.  The "o" in home and emotions and clothes (linking all those words in some subtle way); the different "o" in "for" and "storage" (because the for is unaccented this has less a linking effect a simple pleasant echo of sorts); the "I" "try" and "like"; the "a" in holidays and famous. It's all woven quite wonderfully.

This scene occurs later in the singer's life-- perhaps he is away at school, perhaps he has simply moved away. But by this time his friends are getting famous, with the implication that the singer is not getting famous. The remedy is to try on various emotions. Are we talking the temptation to poserhood, or is it just panic. Those clothes from storage refer us back again to the past in this home, which  is linked to the emotions. It is as if one returning home falls into the same old pablovian responses. I also cannot help feeling that the image of friends being famous at some level refers us back to the newspaper in the opening line of the song-- newspapers after all are a medium of fame.

Nothing seems to fit

The singer has outgrown both the clothes and emotions.

I'm not angry sad or jealous 

This is one of those lines which depending on the intonation can be heard as straight up fact, which is how I have usually heard it. But an argument could be made for irony. The man is going through a bunch of old emotions- not that he's angry, not that he's sad, or jealous mind you.

Confused I will admit
I'm like a song without a chorus

The reason I prefer the straight up hearing of "I'm not angry, sad or jealous" is that none of those emotions are necessarily a reaction to the growing fame of friends.  It is pure projection to assume that a person has to react in that fashion. I actually think that most people are probably happy for there friends success. We get angry sad or jealous when strangers or enemies are successful. The whole tenor of the scene leaves one feeling that the singer's emotions really are the product of simply coming home and facing a confusing welter of old emotions and with the realization of a certain unrootedness. What, when none of these old emotions fit, will anchor him the way a chorus anchors a song. What good refrain worthy of repetition is their within himself.?

Confused I will admit

The line is repeated and therefore emphasized. But the "I admit" is interesting, for one does not, especially with the easy going rambling music, have a total sense of crisis. The singer seems less on the edge of an emotional abyss, than simply hapless. It could of course be the singer looking back at those times and minimizing the crisis. Yet there is a sense of being adrift, or perhaps being incomplete. Maybe there is even a hint that just as a chorus represents the one part of the song which everyone sings along with, the singer at this point in his life, especially when his friends are getting famous, and therefore in some sense have something to which people sing along with, he doesn't seem to quite have that.

The women here I know
Talk like sisters over coffee
They say "How was San Fransisco" and
"Are you really happy"
They say, " I fell in love while you were
but just last week he left me,
So, I can't handle romance
can we
just go to a movie."

I've put this whole section in one piece because it raises a number of interesting interpretive questions.  Perhaps because of a lingering sense from the first stanza of something happening in another room (dad yelling at the newspaper) as the singer is in his place complaining about poets; and that childlike feel of fingerpainting while the adults are all fingerpainting, when this song is played live by Lach solo, this stanza gave me an entirely different impression.  It calls to mind as Lach sings it live of the singer listening to the women he knows talking to each other. They are sort of gabbing in the next room over, like sisters over coffee.  In this listening it is reminiscent of two relatively famous passages in literature-- T.S. Eliot's "In the room the women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo" from the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, and Bob Dylan's lines from Visions of Johanna where "inside the museums" (echo of Eliot) "See the primitive wallflower freeze/When the jelly-faced women all sneeze/Hear the one with the mustache say, "Jeeze/I can't find my knees" Of course Lach's listening to the women speak has none of the implied judgment or disdain (and shall we say sexism?) that seems to run through the Eliot and Dylan lines. In fact, it seems that the singer accepts what they say to each other, and comes to his own conclusion that:

I can't handle romance

No mockery of the gabbing no; no hint that the talk is meaningless, trite. Certainly the stanza doesn't involve any of the first stanza's identification of everybody including the singer with the fingerpointing and complaining that singer is surrounded with. No these are just people talking, and we envision the singer hearing this and sort of realizing he has no clue about how to go about a love life.

BUT, in the studio version the quoted parts are sung by one female voice and it becomes clear that the scene is completely different from the one I envisioned hearing the song live. These are women talking to the singer over coffee, as if they were his sisters, asking about his well-being but making it quite clear that they don't want a romantic involvment with the singer at this moment. "I can't handle romance" and the singer walks away in a sense muttering in parallel to his admission of confusion that neither can he handle romance.

But rather then various women talking to each other about trips to San Francisco and break ups this leads us see that it is the singer who has been to San Francisco.  And this brings the realization that the young artist has left New York for San Francisco where perhaps, as a sort of home for Beat poetry--Ferlinghetti's City Lights Bookstore and all that, he hoped to escape not only the fingerpointing and the choking correctness of other poets. Now I hold that San Francisco has this reputation, and refer to one of Lach's masterpieces- "Staying Sober in North Beach"


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