On this date in 1941, James Joyce, one of the greatest writers of English prose who ever lived, gave up the ghost.
And on this date in 1961 Wayne Coyne, the front man for the Flaming Lips, was born. While exactly twenty years apart, these two facts are unrelated. It is now my intention to relate them.
|Michael Ivins, Wayne Coyne, Steven Drozd|
For me personally, some of the “everything” that had changed was getting used to living in what is often referred to as an “empty nest”—mind you, I don’t know that I feel my habitat is particularly nestlike or that I myself am avian in any way. I tend to side with the Big Cats (Leo, and all that), so I’ll say “empty den,”which is more to the point anyway. I was often in my den alone (my kid was in college and my wife was away most of the 1999-2000 year tending her first grandkid), and there—more of that “everything”—I was more likely to be online than at anytime in my previous 40 years of existence. I resisted the internet, but for incidental use, up til then.
Then too, some of the “everything” was going from the 20th century to the 21st century. And regard: this was still avant the horrendous election of 2000. So there was still, maybe, some hope that “everything” wouldn’t change for the worse as precipitately as it, in fact, did. I could still, at this point, reflect on the change from one century to the next in personal terms. 40 years in the 20th, and maybe 40, give or take, in the 21st. Fine.
The song gets at that personal dimension of change—or rather that moment when the scope of change becomes apparent, personally. Like when someone dies (my father-in-law died early in 2000, for instance), or when someone who was a lover no longer is, or when life with a child becomes life without a child, or vice versa. Big ticket items, pal. And the plaintiveness of Coyne’s vocal brings that home, while the arrangement of synth tones that sound like strings or even a choir at one point makes me recall the heyday of Prog Rock, so that, here, was a band who could trade on some of those musical tropes as late as the end of the century, kinda like Peter Gabriel's Genesis meets Pink Floyd. Cool.
What’s more, the lyrics manage to make mundane things—“Putting all the vegetables away / That you bought at the grocery store today,” or “Putting all the clothes you washed away / As you’re folding up the shirts you hesitate”—assume significance. Alone in my den I would actually find myself pausing during such routine tasks to remember something—like doing those same tasks (especially the groceries bit) years earlier in other apartments as my daughter went from toddler to late teen. It wasn’t so much that “everything has changed,” so much as the sameness of the task in changed circumstances got me where I lived, as they say. The mundane goes on.
And what does this have to do with James Joyce? For me and many other people, “everything changed” in the English-language novel with the publication of Ulysses in 1922, or, if you like, with that novel being legal in the U.S., less than a decade before Joyce’s death. With Joyce’s life and work everything changed and with the cessation of that life and work, we can imagine, everything changed again. The novel went on, just like those mundane tasks Coyne mentions, but somehow not ever the same again for those who took their measure of such things from good ol' JJ.
Anyone who leaves a mark is like that. There’s a before and an after. You still do what you always do, in a sense, but, in another sense, you’ve been “changed, changed utterly.” In the Lips’ song “the clouds all form a geometric shape”—as if modernism, as it did, affected one’s very own perceptions and the very appearances themselves.
“It goes fast / You think of the past.”