When I listen back to my songs, a fair majority of them tend to deal with themes other than romantic love. It's true. I don't write much about love. Most of the songs on Songs For A Shadow deal more with death, loneliness, social injustice, imaginary people, etc. Only one or two vague pronouncements of love... hmm...
But lately I've been writing more about love. I guess it's because I came late into it. During my twentysomething years, I was very much skeptical that such a thing existed. I thought love was really more about business... even though I did fall head over heels for a few hopeless guys...
It took a while to understand how wonderful love is. And how actually to sustain it... not to say that I have. It takes a lot of commitment. And a kind of understanding beyond words. Also chemistry. Also patience. Little things, big things... the right situation, the right timing... there's no easy formula.
And yet... in music... love is such a cliche. Because they often can't describe fully how it feels like to be in love. Some songs come close though. Especially the sad ones. Maybe I'm just a sad feller, but I prefer listening to sad love songs than happy ones. Happy love songs somehow have never conveyed for me the reality of the hapless state of love.
There's a song called "It's Only A Paper Moon" where the lyrics go: "Say, it's only paper moon/ Sailing over a cardboard sea/ But it wouldn't be makebelieve/ If you believed in me". It's kind of sweet and rather witty. And most probably inspired by the fake sets of the Hollywood musicals where many of these chirpy lovey dovey songs were first launched into the popular imagination.
I prefer the more tragic side of the love song genre. And no one does it better than Billie Holiday, of course. The woman is tragedy herself. On "I'm A Fool To Want You", the opening song from one of her last studio albums "Lady In Satin", her voice has been reduced to a painful croak from years of alcohol and drug abuse, she sings of hopelessly pining for someone who... well... basically... doesn't love her back, and she knows it."I'm a fool to want youI'm a fool to want youTo want a love that can't be trueA love that's there for others tooI'm a fool to hold youSuch a fool to hold youTo seek a kiss not mine aloneTo share a kiss that Devil has knownTime and time again I said I'd leave youTime and time again I went awayBut then would come the time when I would need youAnd once again these words I had to sayTake me back, I love you...I need youI know it's wrong, it must be wrongBut right or wrong I can't get alongWithout you"
But she can't help herself... I know the feeling... and I suspect a lot of people have felt it at least once... especially those of us who fall for the philandering type. Ah... love... what a fabulously twisted thing...
It's not easy to carry songs of unrequited love, of regret, loss and madness... it takes real life experience. And Billie Holiday definitely had tons of it. Abandoned as a child, raped, hanging out with men of dubious character... it would make anyone run to the pharmacy. Naturally, for someone with so much grief and with that amazing voice, Billie channeled her despair through her music, offering generations of depressed fools a voice of cold consolation.
Whereas other singers often try to pep you up, kick you out of your low spirits, Billie just pours it on, telling you like it is, bourbon and all. And I think that's why she's stuck around for so long. The sorrow is so direct, and yet so cleverly twisted around her handling of the melody, her vibrato like some kind of glass hammer on the fragile node of one's psyche. When I first listened to Billie about 15 years ago at the age of 18, I thought, "My god, she needs help" and later after listening to the whole CD "My god, I need help". She has that effect.
Anyway, I love Billie, amongst others... she's not the only one that I like though. Next diva would be Sarah Vaughan.
Labels: Billie Holiday, songwriting