Monday, March 3, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 62): "THE SPEED OF THINGS" (1996), Robyn Hitchcock

Considering the two previous posts, it would not be amiss to say that one of the purposes of this yearlong jaunt through the music of my life—besides the already stated one of awakening ghosts—is to attest to those who are “doin’ the things I want to,” as Lou puts it. Contrast that with not wanting to “do things the way those people do,” in “The Big Country,” and you’ve got those I’d emulate if I could and some not-named others who do it all very badly, or at least in a way that I revile. I’ve wondered whether I’ll get around to posting about “all the things I hate,” to borrow a phrase from Franz Ferdinand, and I’m not sure. It seems more important to remain positive, don’tcha think?

Robyn Hitchcock, today’s birthday boy, is 61. And I’ve been listening to him, to some degree, since around 1986 or so. At that time he was recording with a band called The Egyptians, for A&M Records. This was the “major label” phase of his career. He even got some MTV airplay. But dipping further into his work finds a number of solo efforts that can be oddly gnomic. I like some of each, please. Though I will say that one of my favorite LPs is Perspex Island, which is pretty much just great, straight-forward, Beatlesque pop in the grunge era. Nothing wrong with that, is there?

It was the fall of 1997 when Kajsa and I picked up Moss Elixir, and therein found this song which does indeed do something I’d like to. It compresses a very real awareness of passing time into a brief song with a classic, almost Old English tune. Hitchcock had recently lost his father, and so had I. What’s more, Kajsa was 16, the age when most kids get a driver’s license. So these lines: “I fed you in your chair this morning / You made a mess of everything / By afternoon you drove a sportscar / You were driving at the speed of things” hit me with great clarity. Just “this morning” she was in a highchair being fed; now, “this afternoon,” she’s old enough to drive. The speed of things, indeed.

Even the line “you were allergic to bee-stings” has relevance to me, as my stepson indeed is and my wife tells the tale of how he had a scary brush with that lethal allergy as a kid. Then “I threw some earth upon your coffin / And thought about the speed of things” commented only too well on the speed—69 years—of my dad’s time on this earth. “All in the terror of the moment / That pounces as it open swings.” Yes.

There’s even a tale of lost love and new love in the song. The kiss “by the clear, cold river” stirs a memory of sorts, “I felt like I was growing wings” even more so. “But I grew horns and found another.” A funny line: instead of angel wings, devil horns, of course. But “growing horns” is typically the figure for being cuckolded. So there’s a suggestion that “you” found another first. In any case, don’t we pine for “a girl to share the speed of things”? I could say I found that in Kajsa, as she grew, but that was mainly a case of watching the speed of things—like her growing up. The speed of things one would like to share, for me, doesn’t mean “growing old together,” though it easily could; it’s more about sharing things on the fly. Someone quick, in other words. A fast study, as they say. The easily batted badinage. Because now you see it, now you don’t.

Hitchcock’s lyrics are often called surreal; they are often winsomely quizzical, full of odd images and asides, and weird words too. In the past, I didn’t consider that a drawback but it did at times make me treat him as less than serious. Lyrically, he’s a quirky and highly imaginative combination of Dylan and Syd Barrett and the Beatles (like “I Am the Walrus”) and a bit of good ol’ Brit larking. But every now and then he delivers a song that is so brilliant it’s gob-stopping. Like “My Wife and My Dead Wife,” “Acid Bird,” “Luminous Rose,” and other favorites like “She Doesn’t Exist” and “Earthly Paradise” and “You and Oblivion,” some of which I hope I’ll get to. 

For now, we’ll just contemplate the speed of things as I reflect that Robyn is such a nice grandfatherly age. I saw him perform last spring in Manhattan, in a show that resurrected ghosts as well. Besides R.E.M.’s Peter Buck (part of the Venus 3, Hitchcock’s most recent band), R.E.M.’s Mike Mills showed up for a few songs, and also Lenny Kaye of the Patti Smith Group. I remember them all when. But, y’know, I guess it’s still “when.” The albums with the Venus 3 have been some of the best in Hitchcock’s career. And he's now one of my main men. So, here’s to keeping on keeping on, at one’s own speed. 

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