Saturday, November 26, 2011

Water Flowing Under...Ground


I was driving down Magnolia Boulevard in Burbank the other day when a song came on the radio.  It had been a while since I heard it, and it reminded me of a writing assignment I struggled with and had since always felt I had failed at.

One of my tasks in 11th grade English class was to take a popular song and deconstruct it, explaining it’s meaning in an essay.  I chose, “Once In A Lifetime,” by the Talking Heads.  I couldn’t have chosen a more difficult song for me, personally, since at that age, the meaning totally washed over me in my seventeen year-old teen-aged bubble brain. 

One evening, I got to work on my assignment and sat in my room and playing the song over and over, appreciating the complicated rhythms and layered sounds.  However, I found myself forever stumped with it’s meaning.  “What is this?  Water flowing…holding me down, finding myself here, and then there?  I’m driving a really nice car, and then I’ve got a gorgeous girl?  This doesn’t sound all that bad to me folks.  Can I just write that in my essay?”

But some part of me knew that there was more to the song than was apparent on it’s lyrical surface.  I was just naïve.  So I called my mom into my room for help.  It was one of those last steps I never liked to take; getting help from my mother.  I liked to think that I could accomplish my studies on my own, as lacking and half-assed as they were at times.  And calling her in to listen to a pop song; well, it was crossing a universal adolescent boundary that added unpleasantness to my already bruising ego.  But I just couldn’t get past this task on my own.

My mom sat with me on the edge of my twin bed, and I played the song for her on vinyl while I held the album cover hoping she might glean some meaning out of what she was hearing.  As new and exciting at the rhythms were to me, they were very confusing and distracting to her.  My mother loved the fluidity of classical music, and this was its antithesis.  Not even the straight on rock and roll I listened to day and night had acclimated her to this new wave sound.  As the song ended, she gave me with a quizzical look and asked, “Would you play it again?”

As I put the needle onto the beginning of the track again, she took the album cover from me and inspected it as we listened through again.  The lyrics were written on the album sleeve, so when the song ended, we read over them talked about what they could mean.  I suppose that by that time, she had deciphered it’s meaning and was now helping me arrive at an answer for myself.

“Well, you hear him talking about getting all of these wonderful things, and he’s sort of questioning it all, isn’t he?”  “Yeah,” I replied.  “What could that mean?” She nudged.  “I don’t know…he’s wondering how he got them?"  God, I was just lame.  I just wasn’t getting this.  The idea of unattained dreams and misuse of one's own time sacrificed for materialism was just too far beyond my conception.  She eventually led me to understand the idea of what David Byrne and Brian Eno had written, but honestly, I might as well have picked another song because I don't think at that age, I ever fully digested it all.  I simply didn’t have the life experience nor the perspective to appreciate this artistic work.  I don't actually recall, but I'm guessing my essay was mediocre at best.

It’s ironic in a way, because as I was driving the other day I though of how much I love music, writing and thinking about the meaning of the tunes I hear.  I often ponder what the lyricist might have personally been going through when he penned a particular song.  And I thought to myself, it would have been nice to have had that same assignment a few years on down the road.