A Complex Act Of Crying

I’ve written before, unapologetically, on this blog, about my lachrymose tendencies: I cry a lot, and I dig it. One person who has noticed this tendency and commented on it is my daughter. She’s seen ‘the good and the bad’: once, overcome by shame and guilt for having reprimanded her a little too harshly, I broke down in tears as I apologized to her; my daughter, bemused, accepted my apology in silence. Sometimes, my daughter has noticed my voice quiver and break as I’ve tried to read her something which moved me deeply; the most recent occurrence came when I read to her a children’s book on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.–as I began to tell my daughter about the first time I, as a teenager, had experienced the King legend in a televised documentary. I had to stop reading, hand over those duties to my wife, and watch as my daughter heard the rest the book read to her. And, of course, because my daughter and I often listen to music together, my daughter has seen me respond to music with tears. On these occasions, she is convinced that I’m crying because I’m ‘so happy!’

In recent times the song that has served to induce tears in me almost immediately is Chrissie Hynde‘s cover of Bob Dylan‘s ‘I Shall Be Released‘ at the 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration in 1997. (Here is a music video of the  performance; the audio can be found, among other places on Spotify.) No matter what, whenever my daughter and I have sat down some evening–in between dinner and bath and story time–to watch and listen to Chrissie Hynde put her unique and distinctive touch on Dylan’s classic (ably backed up by one of the best house bands of all time – GE Smith and Booker T and the MGs among others), tears spring to my eyes. I’m not sure why; the lyrics are powerful and speak to release, redemption, deliverance, and salvation; it is almost impossible for me to not, at this stage, read so much of the song’s message into a promise of kind directed at my way, at my particular ‘prison’–of the self and its seemingly perennial, unresolvable, crises and challenges. Something in those lyrics–and their singing by Hynde–seemed to offer reassurance, kindly and gently, and with, dare I say it, an existential love for all fellow human sufferers.

So I cry. And my daughter notices. She is both delighted and ever so slightly perplexed; this is her father, a fount of both affection and discipline, a man who struggles at the best of times to find the right balance between gentleness and firmness. She is curious, and so lately, when we play the song, she takes her eyes off the screen to look at me instead; she is waiting for me to cry; and on every occasion, I have ‘come through.’ Now, the song has acquired another dimension for my daughter; she wants to play it so she can see her father cry because he is ‘so happy.’ I don’t have the heart to tell her that my feelings are a little more complicated, and besides, it is true, I’m almost ecstatic as I begin to cry, to feel a little more, and to see my daughter break out in a huge smile.

And so now, if I listen to this song by myself, either on video or audio, I cry again, but something has been added to the song: my daughter’s reaction to it, to my crying. Its emotional texture is richer, more meaningful now; now when I listen to it, I see her turn to gaze into my eyes, looking for the first hint of moisture that will tell her that Papa’s reserve is no more. And I know that years from now, when I listen to this song again, I will cry again, because its lyrics will not just carry their original emotional resonance but also the memory of those days when I used to watch and listen to it with a five-year old girl, now grown older, wiser, and perhaps less inclined to spend such time with her father. That knowledge makes these moments even more powerfully emotionally informed; and yes, even more tear-inducing. A welcome situation.

A Well-Misunderstood Lyric

Misunderstanding the lyrics of songs is not a sign of cognitive deficiency; rather it is an entirely honorable–and creative–activity that for years has provided listeners with considerable pleasure, allowing them to experience, if only for a deluded moment or two, the satisfaction of being a songwriter of sorts. Consider, for instance, the genius who first submitted ‘Excuse me while I kiss this guy’ as an alternative lyric for Jimi Hendrix‘s ‘Purple Haze,’ or the budding McCartneyLennon hybrid who thought that ‘There’s a bathroom on the right’ would work better in Creedence Clearwater Revival‘s ‘Bad Moon Rising‘. Surely they must have caught, for an instant, from their new vantage point that looked down on the teeming masses who could only hear the staid original versions, a glimpse of themselves as poets in the making?

These questions are not rhetorical. I ask because I have just experienced a profound misunderstood lyric moment myself, thus proving you don’t have to be a stoned high-schooler to experience the pleasures of hearing the Absent.

For years now–as befitting my vintage, I’d say for close on to three decades–I have been listening to Led Zeppelin‘s ‘Since I’ve Been Loving You‘. This distinguished member of the White Boy Blues Canon is justifiably considered an epic: that slinky frontman, Robert Plant–who would probably be considered too effeminate by most of today’s rock fans–wails and wails about the wrong his woman has done him, and Jimmy Page plays some of his most scorching, bluesy guitar pieces as accompaniment. Long-haired stoner heaven, indeed. (Incidentally, this is a good track on which to note that Zeppelin’s music production values gave a very prominent place to their percussion section: you can hear John Bonham, Zeppelin’s drummer, laying down the foundations loud and clear, front and center. )

Plant begins by noting that he’s been ‘Working from seven to eleven every night’ and quite rightly observes that that ‘really makes life a drag, I don’t think that’s right.’ And then, he launches into a line that I’ve always, always, heard as ‘I feel it in the best, in the best of food, I did what I could.’ I am not sure why but this line encapsulated the anguish and suffering at the heart of ‘Since I’ve Been Loving You’ perfectly. Imagine: a lover so lovelorn, so sickened by the fear, anxiety, and depression that are the hallmarks of the romantic relationship for the melancholy, that he cannot eat, his palate destroyed by the bitterness of an unreliable and shifting love. It was, along with ‘Do you remember mama, when I knocked upon your door?/I said you had the nerve to tell me you didn’t want me no more’ the line that best conveyed the torment so palpable in this song.

I have been informed, however, that the line in question actually reads ‘I’ve really been the best, the best of fools, I did what I could.’ I’m afraid this version doesn’t quite do it for me; it does not show the true affliction of the soul that I think my version does.

I’m going to continue to hear my line (I suspect it’s too late for me to hear the ‘correct’ version now). Moreover, listeners are supposed to co-create the music they hear; every song has a distinctive role to play in our lives, one whose contours only we can describe. If the ‘actual’ or ‘correct’ lyrics don’t ‘work,’ I suspect we substitute, subconsciously or unconsciously, ones that do.