Today’s topic in the lecture for Daily Themes is “ghosts, magic, and dreams”—which is a way of saying that this coming week the students will be writing about “alternate realities” found in dreams, the supernatural, and maybe even magic realism. And, with the post about “O Death” yesterday, today’s song occurs to me as apropos. And for some reason I can’t get the damned thing out of my head.
I don’t imagine many people have read every one of these posts, but, if you have, you’ve probably noticed that, with birthday tributes and other tie-ins, one of the salient facts of the Song of the Day series is that it will also be a “roll call of the dead.” This song by Kristin Hersh from 1994’s Hips and Makers, with Michael Stipe providing effective background vocals, is appropriate because I’ll be waking many ghosts throughout this series. In the first post I mentioned the performers at The Last Waltz who are no longer with us: Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Muddy Waters, Paul Butterfield. Add to that roll call in the posts so far: Syd Barrett, Rick Wright of Pink Floyd, Sandy Denny, Phil Everly, John Bonham of Led Zeppelin, Ronnie Lane of The Faces, Jeff Porcaro, Jim Hodder (the latter two both drummers for Steely Dan), Jimi Hendrix, Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart), Janis Joplin, Sam Cooke, MLK, Elvis Presley, Steve Marriott, Pete Seeger, Bob Marley, John Lennon, George Harrison, Lou Reed, Philip Seymour Hoffman, my friend Jerry Robinson, and my mother.
So why not turn to this spooky song. I first heard it on a tape sent to me by my friend Andrew all the way from Switzerland. Even without the benefit of liner notes I identified the backup voice as Stipe. And proceeded to acquire some Throwing Muses music. I didn’t actually get Hips and Makers till 1999 and associate it with Kajsa’s first semester away from home, in college. Speaking of ghosts. In any case, the song is hypnotic and seems to come at you from some trancelike space as often happens in dreams where you feel like a sleepwalker and everything you see is just happening without your volition.
The video for this song I do endorse as it was based on the film Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) by Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid, a wife and husband team. Their movie fits perfectly the haunting and haunted dream logic idea and clearly influenced David Lynch, one of my favorite filmmakers. So that’s all well and good. I’m not going to discuss the film except to say that the key, knife, mirror, flower motifs are very effective, as is the subjective camera as a means to explore “altered states.” It’s a great little 13 minute magnum opus.
The video borrows some of the motifs but also includes some that are important from the lyrics of the song: “the blaze across my nightgown / the phone’s ring.” Indeed, the opening of the song, about calling “your old number” and letting “the house ring until I wake your ghost” is as good as it gets. There’s nothing creepier than an abandoned house. And there’s nothing sadder than calling a number that you know no one will answer. It’s like the memory of the number and of dialing it supersedes the fact that that act won’t yield the desired result. And yet it’s mechanical, and that’s much of the tone of the entire song with its repetitions. Both Meshes and the video use the image of a phonograph record playing to underscore that “round and round we go” idea but also the fact that phonographs and telephones are what bring the absent to us. Which leads me back to the fact that many of the songs I’m featuring on this blog feature ghosts.
About that phone: there’s a great scene in Proust where he talks to his grandmother for the first time on that newfangled invention the telephone and he (he’s a highstrung, impressionable lad) immediately feels like he’s talking to her ghost, that she has become spirit and is speaking to him through astral distances. It’s very funny but also very touching, because, in fact, when the narrator is writing the recollection, his grandmother is dead. So. That premonition of the “time after which I won’t be able to call you” is what freaks him out on the original phone call and of course the fact that he has arrived there, writing, makes the whole experience more poignant.
I sense something similar with the use of the phone in Hersh’s video/song. “Sprint across the wire” might almost be an endorsement for a certain phone service. In any case, listening to the phone ring while on the line is an effective correlative for unfulfilled desire. Then there’s that compelling coupling of “You were in my dream / I think last night / You were driving circles around me.” On the one hand, dream logic means that whoever shows up is somehow significant. On the other, the driving circles phrase, with its driving circularity, begins to feel like a downward spiral.
The person who “drives circles around” you might be someone who has “run circles around you,” meaning superseded your efforts, but it is driving not running in the song, which sounds more like a dream event “circling in” on ultimate meaning. Whatever it is “your ghost” wants to say to her by appearing. Or whatever it is she wants to say to “your ghost” by summoning it via the blazing nightgown and the ringing phone.