Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Griffith Park Sessions: A Song-By-Song Lyrical Interpretation

Joshua Ross: The Griffith Park Sessions: A Song-By-Song Lyrical Interpretation
“I’ll cheapen love if I begin/to try to put in words its mystery,”—
Chris Stroffolino, “Break Up, Make Up”

As an appreciator of, and writer on, music, I’ve always been fascinated by challenges of trying to put the feelings that music, at its best, can evoke, into language that can accurately convey to the reader what the music can do. Writing about the lyrics often gets in the way of this task, however fascinating they are. “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing,” for instance, only means anything if you actually like “swing!” But sometimes the lyrics are so compelling and strange that they can almost take on a life of their own. Almost.

Even a musician like Leonard Cohen, whose lyrics have been published as poems, and been discussed and debated with the same intensity usually reserved for the works of literary figures like William Shakespeare or Emily Dickinson, still sings and plays guitar (or at least he used to). It’s an easy temptation to disembody the ways the haunting monotone of his voice, and guitar chops (minimal, but nonetheless, effective) of his earliest albums carried an evocative power in their own right, without which his lyrics wouldn’t have come across.[1]

Yet, when the lyrics are so rich with poetic ambiguity and story-telling as they are on Cohen’s albums, as well as on this first official debut release by Chris Stroffolino, they almost demand a verbal response. Since Stroffolino’s lyrics themselves struggle with putting “love’s mystery” into words, writing about them can actually shed more insight into the mystery of the music than if I were to right about his inventive use of the diminished 7th in “Fire Side Of Me.” That’s at least my hope in this modest, if lengthy, song-by-song introduction to an album that should need no introduction.

 “It’s Not A Matter Just Of Me”

There are certain lines from songs that get stuck in your head despite your best efforts to shoo them away. “It’s Not A Matter Just Of Me,” has one of the strangest, and maybe even strongest, opening lines of any album I’ve heard in a long time:
“You blindfold me for breakfast as if you’re some sleep that I could be.” Those first words, delivered slowly, and accompanied only by an acoustic piano, arrest me. WTF? He sings them so matter of factly: I have no idea what he’s up to, but I’m hooked; my curiosity is, you might, say, piqued.

When Stroffolino adds, “it wasn’t all the reckless,” at first it seems charmingly “sado-masochistic,” like a domesticated “Venus In Furs.” But then the song gets darker, and the woman disappears as he starts singing (or is it talking?) about his “mind.” I hear pain, loneliness and even a quiet self-hatred in his voice, especially in the second verse when he gets to: “It’s hard to think of things to say without someone to say it to.” I wonder, did the woman leave him that quickly?

Then it hits me: the woman (or girl) has been entirely imaginary all along. You might say she’s the woman of his dreams. Suddenly the lyrics make more sense, and help explain the sound of his voice and piano here. The song is a desperate attempt to reach out to someone, anyone, but he doesn’t know who (just because he “couldn’t find a reason” to be sad and lonely doesn’t mean he’s not; this song drips—even oozes—with that despair). He’s either still sleeping, or has just woken up.  For a brief second the woman in the dream appears, but as his eyes open, that “blindfold” disappears.

In the morning there is meaning, and moaning (words and music), and as the song builds to its first emotional climax, the lyrics become more and more abstract, and even metaphysical—but they’re also catchy, like a cross between Dr. Seuss and Emily Dickinson:

I know that it’s just my love/ That doesn’t have to be above
The body that I couldn’t find/ When I let them put it in my mind”

Who are they? We don’t know, but he blames himself for letting them do what they do; a different kind of sado-masochism! But it’s certainly not the woman who’s blindfolding him here, as he gropes for some direction (or perhaps for his post-sleep erection). But then he quiets down and tries to conjure the “you” with only his piano and stream-of-consciousness lyrics. He can’t quite melt his ice-cube mind, however, and he stumbles:

But I wasn’t lonely before I met you,
And it’s not a matter just of me.
No, it’s not a matter just of me.”

His dream was so delightfully intimate (to him) that he wakes up more lonesome than if he had never had it. The awkward phrasing of the title (repeated for emphasis, no doubt), tries to convince him that this vision was not just an illusion, that there really is an astral plane. The best he can do is to step away from his verbal stream-of-consciousness, and let the music do the talking. His “solo” is not just a matter of him; at least he’s got his pi-a-no! Afterwards, his voice returns, seemingly refreshed, and at least a little calmer:

“And someday in the morning I will even think I used to see
But it’s not looking in one eye, it’ only looking in all three.”

So much for the astral plane! The lyrics end where they started, sad and lonely—if not necessarily lonelier. And, luckily, there’s an instrumental coda. This coda, which is surprisingly funky in a song like this, might be the one thing that can point a way out of being trapped in this mindset (or heart-set). It certainly provides a sonic bridge into the next song, which I’m glad to hear, is much lighter, and even fun.

Break Up, Make Up” is in many ways the polar opposite of the album’s opening track, as different as night and day, or writing in blue ink and red ink. The woman’s presence is palpable, so he’s definitely got someone to speak his love to, and he’s got things to say (and maybe even sing). The whole song is a phone conversation, and a little of what she says is included in it, and it’s cute and makes him giddy, as apparently does the mere sound of her voice:

You read somewhere that people need at least four hugs a day
So I guess we owe each other 68.

It’ not entirely clear whether she’s saying “we owe each other 68” or he is, but that may be Stroffolino’s point; they agree! It’s a simple message; they will see each other again. Yes, the singer’s abstract mind is still there too—tugging at him with self-doubt, but here it’s melting in her warmth, and this affords him to charmingly, even gentlemanly, play the role of a metaphysical clown, in words that almost sound like they could be taken from Stroffolino’s book on Shakespeare’s 12th Night:

Ah, methinks the deepest dramas need their comics
For angels fear to tread where fools rush in
And there’s more to life than happy or sad endings
That play break up just to make up once again”

It’s a serious game, but now it’s a comedy (even if it had seemed a tragedy only a song, or phone call, ago). It’s indeed funny that this woman’s return makes him think of literary theory as if, together, they save him from the bottomless pit of emotional introspection and self-pity we heard in the first song. Anticipating her return—“Ain’t gonna cling and claw in this suspension/and ask if I’m too G.I. Joe or Ken--also leads him to think of John Keats’ theory of “Negative Capability,” the ability to live in doubt without any irritable groping of certainties. Of course, only she can say whether he’s being irritable or not—but hopefully she’ll at least hug him 68 times first:

I can’t say what happens next, I hope it ain’t the kind of sex
That leaves us colder than no sex at all
You still feel broken up, and maybe I have woken up
Too late to take you to Viagra Falls.

He definitely comes off a little worried that, during this “second honeymoon,” she will “drop [her] clothes like they’re [her] standards,” but sex could become a ritual of higher love, and it may not be a bad thing to have broken up if it can deepen, while lightening, the intimacy—even if the only way he can put it into words is to name drop “Zarathustra” (“another time loser,” as Bryan Ferry brilliantly rhymed it). Eternal recurrence ain’t so great, if you can’t make it in the den. But apparently they have in the past, and may in the future.

Despite the dark conundrums of relationships here, a genuine seasoned good humour toward intimacy is apparent, and it makes me want to learn more about the beautiful and mysterious woman who inspired it. My only real criticism of this song is of its bouncy, off-rhythm attempts at a Hank William or Doug Sahm country-rocker. It would work so much better with a real band, but the lyrics to this song make loving fun, and can actually stand-up on the page.

These first two songs represent the two opposite poles of this song-cycle, both musically and lyrically. The romantic beauty of the melody and arrangement of the next song, “I’m Not Going Astray,” immediately sucks me in much more than “Break Up, Make Up.” This song lets the music do to talking, and even soothing. As a solo vocal and piano stylist, Stroffolino is back in his comfort zone—the slow ballad; this time it’s a slow 6/8 march waltz. But unlike “It’s Not A Matter Just of Me,” “Astray” is an unconditional love song addressed perhaps to the same woman: he may come and go; they may break up and make up, but he not going away. The expression is more simple, and direct here, without “theory-speak,” and it comes through in the pretty melody and the groggy intimacy of his voice, especially on the bridge:

“Take me for anything you can devise
I’m an object for a minute, I’m not so street wise.”

And, if he presumes an intimacy in some of the words, at least he acknowledges the possibility of his hubris at the end:

“Maybe I see you too much with my eyes
To know if you’re feeling your lows as my highs.”

It’s a beautiful song, and the next one might even be better, in part because it opens with a long piano instrumental. This extended instrumental intro to “Don’t Be Afraid” gives the album some much needed yin energy.  It’s like a cross between Plachebel’s Cannon, and “See The Pyramids Along The Nile” (You Belong To Me), but it’s also got a little of Skeeter Davis’s “The End Of The World,” in its melodic and chordal mix. When the words begin, they continue the intimate, romantic tone of the previous two pieces. The words begin calmly and deliberatively, but even though the song is called “Don’t be Afraid,” there’s a lot of fear expressed as it builds, as if Stroffolino is singing, “don’t be afraid of fear,” or “don’t be afraid of my fear.”

“If only you would have pushed me away
The way you say I’m pushing you away
Than you would cheat on me with only me
And I would cheat on you with only you.”

Why does he make a statement of unconditional monogamy so goddamn difficult? Maybe it’s because he’s trying to use the corrupted language of mere words against itself to draw attention to the primacy of the music, as what can bring them closer together. Even in this stripped down form, the song is propelled to its emotional climax with an insistent, increasingly percussive, movement (this is even more emphasized on the alternate studio version with firecracker drums, and Neutral Milk Hotel-esque trumpet).

Note: I saw Stroffolino perform this at The Echo County Outpost, opening for Jeffrey Lewis, in which he collaged the song with the chorus of the theme to “Billy Jack:” (“Go Ahead and Hate Your Neighbor/ Go Ahead And Cheat Your Friend”), and the effect of this extended 7 or 8 minute epic version was harrowing in its navigation of moods.

 “Make It Rain (And Teach Me How To Row),” is much lighter, like a more minimal version of “Break Up, Make Up,” both musically and lyrically. Lyrically, it’s the closest to a song of unconditional praise to the woman, but the lyrics tell us at least as much about his kind of love as they do about her. The main point pivots on a contrast between what he used to feel, and what he feels now. He loves her even more now that “everybody” no longer calls her “too pretty.” He also thought her “beauty almost ruined New York City,” but loved the fact that she was modest, even old-fashioned, and “tried to hide (her) body, being kind.” But his love has grown deeper with time, as he moves beyond adolescent idealization and fear:

And now my feelings lose their fight with thoughts/Heartbreak’s not the soul
And my body’s like a desert/Till the hill becomes a hole

As he celebrates her for keeping him guessing, he puts it in a very funny, and self-mocking way:

I used to fall for the desert girls coz I drowned each time I swam,
But they loved me like the word wasn’t round.”

Yes, she can make it rain, but she can also teach him how to row! If the album ended here, it would almost be like a story with a happy ending---as it moves from the lonely misery of “It’s Not A Matter Just of Me,” to the gentlemanly equanimity of “Make It Rain.” But immediately after he sings, “Don’t Tase Me, Bro” the album takes a darker turn. The next song, a cover of the Minutemen’s version of Richard Hell’s “Time” (with the darker, less mature lyrics the Minutemen used, whether intentionally or not), shows he speaker stepping back into the hearse of his head.

In “Time,” he steps away from a narrative about a love relationship. The passage of time becomes his only muse; this abstract and visionary statement of Hell’s faith serves as both a break from the love songs and a commentary on them. (Stroffolino wrote about the song here: http://chrisstroffolino.blogspot.com/2013/04/the-video-covers-project-part-i-time.html)

After “Time” is another upbeat original that returns to the themes of love and fear, and personal identity. Musically, “Fire Side Of Me” is the album’s most tightly structured pop-song (in the classic AM Top 40 sense of that word; check out the middle-8). It’s could be a classic power-pop hit if covered by the right band. Like “Time,” “Fire Side of Me” is a muse-song, but it’s also an amu-sing song. This muse is like a cross between the real woman of most of the songs on side one, and the imaginary woman of “It’s Not A Matter Just Of Me.” As the title suggests, this song is more about him than the muse who excites him, and places him at a crossroads where nothing but uncertainty lies.

In the first verse, he considers three possible futures this fiery feeling the up-tempo rock and roll muse opens up could lead him to: 1) he could die soon (like, say, TVZ’s “Pancho”); 2) he could be could condemned to live for years in the “White Lie” (with its implied racism), which may be no better than actually dying prematurely (like TVZ’s “Lefty”); or he may become more natural if less normal (but he fears that he’ll “get the axe if [he becomes] a tree.” The lines are clever and cutting.

The one-line chorus may sound like a command, but as the last verse and coda makes clear, it’s really more of a description; this is simply what the “muse of fire,” does, or at least what he feels in her presence.[2] She may not be fire herself—but that may be fine if opposites attract (as he sings in the second verse): “I’m burning for you in the cold, I’m freezing in the heat.” Maybe he’s hot for her, and she’s so cold, but this singer loves the cold and can appreciate how it warms him, in contrast to like Jagger’s much more adolescent words.

She makes him want to wake up and smell the coffee, but not only does she help make that bitter taste sweet, she also helps him go beyond mere inversion, mere reaction. Her love and the coffee also have the power to: “Make [him] feel the flowers sting the honey from the bee!”

That may be my favorite lyric on the entire album, and it contributes to the over-all orange sound this song can achieve even without electric guitars (in contrast to the watery blue sounding songs like “Don’t be Afraid” and “Astray”). The bridge with its percussive “I Think We’re Alone Now,” 8th Notes now heightens the contrast between the woman and him. Yes, she takes it to the market coz she needs a place to park it, while he keeps it in closet—but he joyfully embraces these lonely nights, with the help of coffee; he glories in the space her “shopping” is giving him. This is precisely what the “individual” creation of artifacts (at least artifacts as tight as this song is) entails.

Then, after the exuberance of the Rod Argent-like solo (well, it’s like Argent when Stroffolino plays it on a Wurli or a Rhodes), he reaches out to the difficulties she may be having on the market (“to find love in the city/ like a needle made of pity/in the haystack of the hustle ad the bust”), even while trying to call her back “home” to his sedentary, but fiery, live/work “interior frontier” (even if the ‘fort’ he mans isn’t really that domestic, but more like Dickinson’s cowgirl wildness, with bees). As he sings he wants to be “all” the tricks she’s turning, he feels glad she took away his “bite” and changes it into a “bark” of art. And he’ll hold on, even if he can’t see her now (“It’s a song about long-distance relationship,” Stroffolino copped to when prodded), but he’s doing his best to admit his dependency on her.

Compared to the previous upbeat songs (“Make It Rain,” and even “Break Up, Make Up”), it feels more strained and less mature. This may also be because he’s trying to navigate a more difficult adult theme---the fear of losing both the woman and the job. Not wanting to lose either, but feeling tugged in different directions. Yes, he’s trying to be reassure her, but as a portrait of the woman (assuming she’s not just an abstract muse), he paints a much more one-dimensional picture that I doubt she’d see her reflection in. Maybe this is why she has apparently left him before the next song starts.

“Wherever It’s Gray” may be the prettiest melody on the album, but it’s also the saddest, and ultimately most despairing, song. The woman’s “Ruby Tuesday” meets “Our Lips Are Sealed”-like freedom is also presented more one dimensionally. It is, after all, a “she” song (the first one of those on the album). The one-dimensional woman in this song does, however, allow the singer to express a more naked pain. The pain here is in sympathy with the guy (the song’s “you”), or the woman if the pronouns were reversed.

The sympathy is not just for any guy who’s been abandoned, but a guy stuck in a place that is perpetually “gray,” a drab, dead-end small town, where everybody fascinating and beautiful leaves. This could be Stroffolino’s hometown of Reading, Pennsylvania. It becomes a weirdly comforting song. “I know how it feels,” and hearing the gorgeously rich melody when I’m in these kinds of moods makes me feel less alone.

In general, the moods of the album become wider on Side 2 than on Side 1. While side one had generally alternated between slow and upbeat songs about a love relationship, side two offers a more fleshed out emotional palette—even though the woman is less present. “How Do You Know It’s Raining?” sounds more like Nick Cave (especially when Stroffolino performs it with a distorted noise guitarist and industrial drummer, which I had the pleasure of hearing). The unhinged pain of the lyrics morphs into an anger that is much more haunting than Elvis Costello ever achieved, even at his angriest and aggrieved. The lyrics are, again, anything but intimate, but about being stuck; they’re metaphysical and damningly personal. The verses are a series of 6 unanswered, even unanswerable, questions, punctuated with an enigmatic, but brutal chorus: always the same if you don’t want to make it your life!

It’s like Dylan’s “Blowing In The Wind,” but in reverse. “This is one of the first songs I wrote,” Stroffolino told me, “way before the Silver Jews even. I hadn’t played it in years, but when Jeff [Feuerzeig] wanted to record some of my originals in the van, it came back to me, with a vengeance. Suddenly its lyrics seemed uncannily relevant to my current situation, more than it ever did when I wrote it. Yes, I don’t want to make this my life, and I don’t even want to sing a song about not wanting to make this my life. It cuts too close to home. It’s like the blues. In certain moods, it’s irresistible though. Free my fingers and vocal chords (get the mucous out), and maybe the words can follow. The lyrics could be cathartic, but I often feel worse after singing them. That’s just me—feel free to disagree (laughs).”

In “Eyes of The Dead,” we’re back on the comfortable mid-tempo plateau of “Make It Rain (And Teach Me How To Row).” The personal is the political; as it addresses itself to a generational we (probably gen X, but could be Y, or even Z) in the shadow of the ruins of the mid-century baby boomers and their almost unavoidable hand-me-down culture still pushed in the mass media today (“trickle down Beatles”). Yes, he admits the nostalgia “for a time before we were even born” when America still had an economic infrastructure, but he moves beyond these complaints with the catchy, anthemic, sing-along chorus that tries to create a cultural present as an alternative:

“But it’s only when you close the Eyes of The Dead,
And free the cat stuck up in the tree.
It’s only when you close the Eyes of The Dead
You’ll have a little love left for me.”

“This was written during the Occupy Movement,” he writes, “which I worked with, and had great hope for in the fall of 2011. I wrote a lot more blatantly political stuff then that we didn’t put on this album; manifestoes, etc---before it, and my life, fell apart.” The brighter tone in this song, however, suggests that he’s weathered a storm, and this continues on the album’s penultimate song, “Vida Guerra.” “Vida Guerra,” actually brings in another instrument aide from his voice and a piano. In this case, the Moe-Tucker-esque drums played by Ned Casual, drummer for the LA-based band The Downtown Train (there’s another version of this song on Youtube, in which Stroffolino is joined by Sonic Boom of Spaceman 3 fame, for some 4 handed piano work). These drums, set up in the van, provide an accompaniment that help the piano and vocals lock into a simple, but effective, pocket that had been somewhat elusive on the other rockers on this album. This renders the song, seemingly against all odds, into a danceable rave-up.

While the voice and lyrics start dangerously close to that over-verbal Elvis Costello flippancy that his performance of “Break Up, Make Up” also approaches (the sing-song, “Absolute despair/ can make you think you care/ You crawl out of your hole to say you’re sane”), it becomes a refreshing reprieve after the darkness of “Wherever it’s Gray,” and “How Do You Know It’s Raining?” and the morbidity of “Eyes of The Dead.” Producer Jeff Feuerzeig calls it a song “for all the fucked up children of the world,” and while this song may protest that it’s “sane,” but it doesn’t necessarily show it. It’s a tribute to a well-known soft-porn model from the 00s, but with a twist. It’s really a tribute to her name, which means “Life War.” Did I mention Stroffolino has also published many volumes of poetry? It figures.

The most interesting, and even most convincing, socially buoyant lyrics on this song come after the instrumental breakdown---a kind of “white rap” in the mode of early Gordon Gano; the flow’s pretty amazing, if not as intimate as “Break Up, Make Up”:

And when we’re all in tight pants we feel more alive
More sexy, shiny, new-breed mod like 1965
And if you can’t feel it without getting wet
Are you a parody of what you can’t prevent?
And oh ma mama, what you gonna have to do
When your kid starts walking round like he’s #32
I’d rather be a wall than a hammer or a nail
Why not pretend success if the banks pretend they fail
Trial and error, I love you and her
The difference between “estar” and “ser”
Jump the broom, but be home soon
And get on top, if you know when to stop”

In many ways it’s the perfect climax to this album, and maybe a sign of things to come should Stroffolino choose to record, or perform, with a band again, or even “go electric.” The album’s final song, “Don’t You Wanna Take Care Of Me,” brings back the somber, confessional, mood of “Wherever It’s Gray” and “It’s Not A Matter Just Of Me.” Like “Gray,” it’s another “she” song, but it’s also a “me” song. Perhaps addressed to the same women the love songs on side one were, the singer feels he has no one to blame but himself for his failure in loving, and losing. We’re is left hanging, as if he can’t even answer the woman’s offer of care, but in between the lines he seems to be practically begging for forgiveness, or a second chance. The song is ultimately effective because of its understatement.

“Well, winter came, and spring rolled by,
I thought I was reaching out past the lie
But when I kissed her, she said it felt like a hit
Ah, but what could I do I was at a loss
I was reading all kinds of poetry where woman was the boss
And I knew I had to get back to it.”

The pain is palpable in his voice, but so is the love.

These are just some initial thoughts on this amazing song-cycle. Good songs can be interpreted in many ways, and these are good, and even great songs. They are also flexible enough that they can be covered in many different styles. I know I would love to hear them done in different styles. This album is different. Just voice and piano, no added instrumentation (except for “Vida Guerra”), no overdubs—and recorded quickly, in a van, like some “field recording from 1962.” I was skeptical at first (“this isn’t an album, it’s a collection of demos”), but I admired the chutzpah of Stroffolino and Producer Jeff Feuerzeig.

It’s different all right, but maybe this is exactly what we need right about now. As piano/vocal music, I can say with absolute certainty that this album is superior to Elton John’s recently released, and much hyped, The Diving Board. Of course, Elton has earned the right to coast I suppose—but Stroffolino brings freshness and a unique rawness to the piano (that doesn’t sacrifice a rawness and a warmth for the temptation to “tinkle,” which Stroffolino adeptly avoids). And, in this day, of slick-over produced generic sounding “corporate” and “indie-rock,” this album, with all its limits, is very refreshing, and becomes better the more you listen.

Joshua Ross

[1] To be sure, Cohen himself, did not think of his own performances of his songs as absolutely definitive, and welcomed other versions (“When it comes to lamentations, I’d much rather hear Aretha Franklin, than, say, Leonard Cohen,” he once wrote).

[2] Muse of Fire, is actually the first line of Shakespeare’s Henry 5th, I hadn’t remembered that)

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