Saturday, January 18, 2014


"Belinda" / Ben Folds

I reckon Ben Folds could have his pick of writers to do his lyrics (not that Ben Folds even needs anybody else's lyrics). So whom did Ben pick to collaborate with on his 2011 album Lonely Avenue?  Why, the same guy I'd pick -- British novelist Nick Hornby.

Hornby is an innate storyteller, and each of the songs on this wonderful album come embedded with characters and plot. "Belinda," the last track on the album, in some ways brings Lonely Avenue full circle.

Our narrator here is a touring rock musician -- not Folds, though, at least not exactly. This singer is an oldies act, facing nostalgic audiences night after night, and every night they clamor for his showstopper, the one big hit of his career. (Clever line: "He always hears how much it means to people / There's a lot of fortysomethings wouldn't be in the world without it" -- which dates his audience as the 40-somethings' parents, well into their sixties.)

They came to hear "Belinda," and while he may save it to the very end -- hence track 11 -- they won't go home until they've heard it.  But here's the catch: He wrote it about his old sweetheart when they were still in love -- before he screwed around with a busty blond flight attendant and left Belinda. He knows he didn't do the right thing; how weak his excuse is -- "She gave me complimentary champagne." Years later, he is curdled with regret. 

And still, every night, he  has to get up on stage and sing this love song to the woman whose heart he broke.  

Now, being the geeky fangirl I am, I've actually pondered this before.  It's one thing for Paul McCartney to sing "My Love" and think about his late wife Linda, whom he loved till the day she died; it's another for Eric Clapton to sing "Layla" about his ex-wife Pattie Boyd Harrison Clapton, whom he divorced.  How does he feel, singing that song?  Does he picture Pattie to himself or does he just sing the notes?  Ray Davies can cut a song like "Property" out of his repertoire if the memories of his divorce sting too much (was that Yvonne he left for Chrissie Hynde?), but what if you only had a couple of recognizable hits?  Could Gerry Marsden have gone on singing "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying" if the girl he wrote it for hadn't come back and married him?  And what about the Left Banke -- if they'd stayed together, would they be forever singing "Walk Away Renee" about the bassist's girlfriend, that girl who got away?  It makes you think.

So it's secretly thrilling to hear that Nick Hornby has been wondering this too. (Have you been reading my diary again, Nick?)  He's a talented wordsmith and all, but it's that understanding of the human heart that really makes Nick Hornby so wonderful to read.  And when you add in Ben Folds' plaintive melodic gifts -- well, it's a heartbreaking album. But in a good way.

9 DOWN, 43 TO GO

1 comment:

NickS said...

And still, every night, he has to get up on stage and sing this love song to the woman whose heart he broke.

Now, being the geeky fangirl I am, I've actually pondered this before.

It occurs to me that this is a specific instance of the more general question, "what is like for a musician to continue to perform a song when they no longer have access to the emotions that they originally brought to the song?"

I don't say that to dismiss the question. I wouldn't have thought of it this way, but you might say that when people talk about the "magic" of music one element of that is taking an emotional experience and making it repeatable, in some way.

Obviously it's almost cliche to think of a musician who grows to resent their hit, and to resent the audience for wanting to hear that hit over and over again. But it seems like it must be a difficult experience.

Various examples come to mind:

1) Most directly related to the questions raised by "Belinda" is this from the liner notes to the Marianne Faithfull collection that I have (emphasis in the original), "[Wilner] expressed similar admiration for her brave return to 'As Tears Go By,' the Jagger-Richards composition that was her first sixties hit, turning her into the pop Ophelia she later had to drown and resurrect. On the new version, she sinks gingerly into the weariness that the song demands . . . 'When she and Bill Frisell put it on tape, Marianne said, we're only gonna do this one,' Wilner said, 'And they did. That take is what you hear.'"

2) I often wonder what it's like for musicians who's biggest hits are early in their career. What it must be like for them to either feel like they are unable to recapture that creative inspiration or, perhaps even worse, to feel personally like they have continued to grow artistically and creatively, but that that doesn't resonate with the audience as much as their early work.

I've also seen this described as, "Elvis Costello Syndrome (which causes spoon-bendingly talented musicians to get tired of doing what their talents have made easy for them and to begin pushing the boundaries of their gifts, with sometimes embarrassing results).

3) Sometimes the emotions of a song change. I've linked to this before, but I am fascinated by this performance of "Seven Year Ache." Roseanne Cash is returning to a song that she wrote while in a difficult relationship with Rodney Crowell, and she's literally twice the age that she was when she wrote the song. And it's lovely. She's able find different emotional connections to the song.