52 GIRLSTwo Janes
If you've tuned in looking for "Janie's Got A Gun" by Aerosmith . . . .really? On what planet?
"Jane" / Golden SmogTechnically this is a Golden Smog track, from that alt-country supergroup that has at various times included everyone from Wilco's Jeff Tweedy to the Replacements' Chris Mars to Big Star dummer Jody Stephens. But I prefer to think of it as a lost Jayhawks song. Though it appears on the 1998 Smog album Weird Tales, it was written by Jayhawks Gary Louris and Marc Perlman, with a Louris lead vocal. And like the best of the Jayhawks' stuff, it's a well-crafted short story with a yearning heart.
In a way, Jane is Eleanor Rigby with a twist -- she escapes from the mouldering mansion. "She came from a wealthy family," he sets the scene, and then draws an almost cinematic picture of her trapped in their house, with "walls inside the walls" and a widow's walk where she paces restlessly. "She watched from every window / Darkened every door / Saw her reflection / In every wave that hit the shore" -- it's like a montage from Rebecca, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, or maybe Dark Shadows. A mellotron sighing underneath the folky acoustic guitar jingle adds just the right melancholy touch.
In verse two we learn that she has "wandered off into the night / One eye closed, the other blind / Reading the silver side of signs." That last image is striking; I picture her walking in the wrong lane, against the traffic. Up to now, I've imagined her as a rebellious young daughter -- but then the line "everything you had, you lost before" turns things around, as I realize that Jane is haunted by her past, not longing for a future.
Shifting into a higher key, that plangent chorus is nothing but unanswered questions: "Jane, why don't you give a damn? / Jane, why don't you stay?" I wonder indeed, and can't help thinking about Elvis Costello's "Veronica." Could Jane be wandering off because she's got dementia?
In verse three, she seems to be back home: "And when her scattered thoughts had died / The sand upon her feet had dried / Among chandeliers and sweet perfume." So much for running away. I should be glad to know she's safe and sound -- then why does this ending feel so sad?
"Jane" / Ben Folds FiveOnly a year later, this "Jane" is much more of an indie heroine. It's from the Ben Folds Five's ironically titled 1999 album The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner. (Inside joke: That was the name on drummer Darren Jessee's fake ID in high school -- the guys didn't know there was a real Reinhold Messner, a world-famous Italian mountain climber, until the album was nearly finished. Reportedly instead of suing he just sent them a note saying he enjoyed their record.)
Not your typical love song, I guess; you could call it an Advice Song. But unlike 1960s girl-group advice songs, this one is the opposite of finger-wagging sass.
It starts with a lonesome whistling wind (Reinhold Messner standing atop a peak?) before abruptly plunging us into a lounge of cool piano trio jazz. The textures and syncopation remind me of Steely Dan, but this is something else entirely, with a rueful tempo and tender vocals. The chords shift uncertainly, and the lines are short, as if he's hesitating, so anxious to be tactful. "Jane, be Jane," he counsels her (I like the tautology of that line, more personal than a boring old "be yourself " mantra). "You're better that way," he adds, "Not when you're trying / Imitating something / You think you saw." The lines don't even rhyme; he's groping for the right words.
It's no time for an "I am woman hear me roar" anthem -- Jane (as in plain Jane) is so anxious and insecure, she clearly needs a nudge. What if the boys won't like me? you can almost hear her wail. But verse two has an answer for her: "Jane, be Jane / And if sometimes that might / Drive them away / Let them stay there / You don't need them anyway." You're too good for those guys, Jane.
The key shifts higher and the volume swells in the bridge; brushed cymbals and a riot of piano glissandos add starry hope, as he dives deeper into her insecurities. "You're worried there might not be anything at all inside / If that's your worry / I should tell you that's not right." I love how his voice lifts, with such a touch of exasperation, on "tell you that's not right." Fact is, we're all vulnerable to that worry in the dark nights of our soul.
In verse three, he shifts from chiding to cheerleading: "It's your life / And you can decorate it / As you like." I love this next line: "Beneath the pain and armor / In your eyes / The truth still shines." Will the real Jane please stand up?
Okay, so I've said it's not a love song -- but who is this singing? A brother? A shrink? An old boyfriend? A friend with a secret crush on her? Whoever he is, he clearly loves Jane and sees how special she is. Who knows what might happen if she'd take his advice . . .