Thursday, June 5, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 156): "SHE IS MINE" (1981) The Psychedelic Furs

Today’s the birthday of Richard Butler, the vocalist for the new wave pop group the Psychedelic Furs, who were a fairly big find for me round about 1983. In spring of that year I acquired the band’s three albums then in existence. Today’s song is from the second LP, 1981’s Talk, Talk, Talk. Both the first two albums resequenced for the U.S. the UK versions, so what I knew first and foremost was the U.S. versions. Much later—in the 2000s—I got reissue CDs that had the original UK tracks and sequence as well as bonus stuff. That produced a little flurry of re-interest and my daughter and I saw them play live at New Haven’s Toad’s Place. It surprised me what a blast it was to hear those songs performed live—because I knew the words to almost all the songs from the first three LPs.

Today is also the birthday of my youngest brother and it's fitting that he was a Furs’ fan, more or less, in their day and is a big Dylan listener. And there was something decidedly dylanesque about the Furs, to me, and not least in today’s song. Butler could look a bit like Blonde on Blonde Dylan, or rather looked like someone who was in league with that look. He can slur and pout like anyone and his song lyrics are rather barbed. Punk, as the musical movement that immediately influenced up and coming bands in the late Seventies, was all about sneering and put-downs and trashing the sacred cows of the rock myth. The Furs were cool about all that. They sneered at rock even while they played a very romantic version of it, full of soulful sax to offset the soulless sax sound of so much mainstream pop. The Furs were a different version of pop and they mocked its traditions, as on the song “We Love You,” or the sharply presented lyric from “Into You Like a Train”: “if you believe that anyone / Like me inside a song / Would even try to change it all / Then you have been put on.” The put-on and the put-down being two major notions: to put on is to be phony and a creation of the media-ized world; to put-down is to reject all that that world offers. But to suggest that the rejection is a put-on is, to my mind, spot on as a comment on what punk was, in the end.

The Furs were not lambasting rock music by means of raucous amateurism or frenetic screeds. Butler’s voice generally sounds mournful, as if he wishes that things didn’t suck so much and that, yeah, it is a shame—a cause for Weltschmerz—that they do.  In “She is Mine” he lets the sax do a lot of the convincing for him, it floats along like the very air is tainted by doldrums it’s trying to break out of.

“I hope you get your invitation / It is here for you / Listen to the conversation / Playing pretty tunes”

We’re invited to pretty tunes and the sad realization that “they’re making up things that we’ve all heard before / Like romance and engage and divorce / You’ve got to be crazy to stay in this place / You’ve just got to laugh at it all.” That notion that the dating and mating and divorce game was, in fact, a game sat well with me when this song came to my attention. It was a wry comment on something I was beginning to have to deal with in earnest (I became a father the year the Furs’ second album was released), but the idea that one could “laugh at it all”—which is to say, at the “here, then gone again” romances that were circling about—was reassuring.

Butler knows how to point his finger at inanity while also suggesting—and it was a suggestion I found every reason to believe—that there were heights or depths of feeling still possible, even in a world where, as “We Love You” says, “we’re so stupid, we all dream.”  Something in the candor of his position was likeable, even if we (his audience) might well be part of the “all” he’s laughing at.  And Butler delivers such equivocations in a voice that is strangled but lyrical, never simply strident or overbearing.  He can be a bit, in attitude, like Morrissey in The Smiths, on occasion, wincing at the way the world makes him feel, and relaying that feeling with a sense of our own exposed jugulars. In this song he is addressing us (or someone), wanting to extend an invitation and apologizing for not waiting for us (to catch up). The conceit of the song is that the singer sincerely wishes things were otherwise and tells us all he does to demonstrate the bittersweetness of things being beyond his control.

“I met this girl and called her Ma / I called her everything / I called her fab and Mrs. Fish / I didn’t get her name.” This description has always reminded me, in its wording, of the kind of comical song Dylan wrote in his youth—something like one of his talking blues crossed with a song of demented relations like “She’s Your Lover Now,” attesting to the idea that love, or at least fleeting but memorable encounters, can be really weird, full of angst and hilarity. And that, either way, it’s probably just nerves.

The title “She is Mine” (like the title of Dylan’s “She Belongs to Me”) alludes to a relationship that is never spelled out. Who is mine? The “she” floats through the song like that sinuous sax, and the phrase gets enunciated by the background vocals in such a way as to seem like a consoling thought as well as a mournful one. It’s not so much a case of being saddened that she is mine, so much as it’s a case that her being “mine” is saddening. Chastening, we might say.

And maybe that’s what he’s inviting us to sample. Romance as an elating drag, or as the stuff of dreams that makes us want to try it even when we know better. The song has always given me a lift, as when you realize “she is yours” or when you realize that some final reckoning will always be elusive, a wish rather than an achieved reality. Shrugging it off and jesting, “I had to pay the doorman just to let me use the door.” There’s always someone who benefits from our confusion.

You have to get out of it all.

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