My Summer Reading, or How I Spent a Few Months Desperately Avoiding the Literature of Narcissism

Way back in 1987 or 1988, I was at a party in New York City hosted by my girlfriend’s sister.  At the time I was a college student who was deeply infatuated with the notion of becoming a writer – a poet, a short story writer, maybe a novelist someday.  I loved to spend my days reading, thinking about the construction of stories and poems, getting into conversations about Milan Kundera, Ernest Hemingway, Edith Wharton.  That night, I met Jenny Egan, who was an emerging writer who had recently published a story in The New Yorker.  Jenny was lovely, not only physically but in her generosity in sitting down and talking me about being a writer, about her work, about some of the books and writers we both liked.  It was pretty great.  I was a rather smalltown kid, about twenty years old, hanging out in a groovy downtown apartment, drinking cocktails and chatting up a New Yorker writer.  Now, it certainly helped that she was a good friend of the hostess!  But what was great to me was her willingness to not so much offer advice but to validate my place in the conversation.  That I belonged in that space and that conversation, and that I might have something valuable to offer in it.  It was wonderfully affirming.

Jump twenty one, twenty two years.  Although I’ve written plenty of poems and some stories, that’s not the path that I’m on.  And yet I’ve been lucky enough to follow my passion for reading and for talking about what I’m reading.  I’m an English professor.  And it’s every day that someone asks me, “Who’s your favorite writer?”  I always want to answer, “John Milton.”  Or Wordsworth.  Blake.  Alexander Pope.  Hawthorne.  Ben Jonson.  But that would do no good.  So I try to engage in a civil conversation about reading and his/her favorite novels.  I’ll be honest – it’s almost always brutal to someone who studies literature to have this discussion.  But it’s to be expected.

Nonetheless, like all other professors and like most other people, I try to keep abreast of what writers are doing and writing.  Which brings me to this past summer and what I encountered.  First a brief note: it took me some time this summer to get into reading again, but I found my way there.  I’m not looking to discuss every book I read, but want to highlight some in particular.

My early summer summer was spent with Nick Hornby.  I’m teaching High Fidelity this Fall and needed to read it and thought that Fever Pitch would be good fun considering my interest in the World Cup.  Let me be plain: Fever Pitch is not a good book.  I understand that memoirs are, by nature, focused on the individual telling the story, but I can’t seem to find any entree into this book – and I’ve been at it for about four months.  I want to like it, but I can’t figure out why I should.  Yes, his family situation sucks and he finds companionship and something larger than his own troubles in his loyalty to his team, but really it doesn’t add up to anything much. I haven’t given it a go in a while.  And while I’m about to teach High Fidelity, it reads like a young man’s novel – focused on his own woes, his own foibles and misunderstandings.  It can be entertaining, but is also rather solipsistic.

I bring these up because I read a third Hornby book – Juliet, Naked.  This is a novel I’d recommend, and the novel that took me into my summer reading.  Here Hornby finds a way to move beyond boyish obsessions into character study.  The obsessions are still there mind you, but now he is able to write from outside them and to recognize their limitations.  Part of this was his move to focus on a female protagonist – for at least part of the novel.  It did him good.  He might think about doing more of it.  t led him to be much more compassionate to his characters and the situations he places them into.  He learned to do more than play them for laughs.

Boatloads of friends and reviewers recommended Jeff in Venice, Death in Varnasi and I tried to give this novel a go.  Rarely have I ever found a novel so very difficult to get into.  I know lots of people love Geoff Dyer, but I just wasn’t willing to follow him – and I’m usually one willing to do so.  And I recognize that part of the point was to engage the reader in the narcissism of the protagonist in the opening section as a means to undercut that self-centeredness.  But it just didn’t work for me.  It was just self-centered as a novel, not a study of self-centeredness.

Which brings me to The Imperfectionists, one of those novels that got amazing press over the summer. But why, I’m willing to ask, do readers think this is a good novel?  It was reviewed pretty well.  How, I don’t know.  It doesn’t work structurally, not in terms of revealing something deeper about character or about the themes or ideas that it seeks to dramatize.  It’s a fine study of the evolving newspaper business, but it’s not a good novel.  It’s shapeless and lacking in any overall cohesion or coherence.

A brutal summer of reading this sounds like, no?  In many ways, yes, except for two books.  The first is A.M. Homes’s This Book Will Save Your Life.  Admittedly, part of the reason I love this novel was its setting in Los Angeles, where I spent part of the summer.  I gravitated toward the insanity of the novel as a reflection of what I was also experiencing in actual life.  But my deep engagement – and it was extremely engrossing not only in the basic storyline but in the way that Homes took us further into the characters’ lives – was more a result of Homes’s rather striking love of the story she was telling.  That might sound funny, but it’s not.  Homes came up with a crazy, eccentric story that wonderfully matched the irrationality of LA and she embraced it in not only the story but in the way she told the story.  And all along, she never lost her affection for her characters.  As I read this novel in mid-July, often late night in Venice Beach, I appreciated more her generosity toward these character than the zaniness of the story.  Homes was having fun, but she was also doing something worthwhile.  And I enjoyed being part of that as I read along.

And that’s what takes me back to Jenny Egan.  Of course I’ve kept track of her, reading her stories in The New Yorker and Harper’s and having a sense of what she was doing.  I didn’t get to The Keep, but wanted to.  It’s a novel that sits on my list of “What I want to read that is still new and what I haven’t read.”  An ever-expanding list, but also shrinking in its own way.  Jenny has never left that list – I like what she does with characters and situations.  What do I mean? That’s best explained by my brief take on A Visit From the Goon Squad, her latest.

How shall I put it?  This is a novel that focuses on the lives of a number of individuals in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century.  It’s realism that doesn’t worry about being realistic, it’s fantasy without being particularly fantastic.  More than anything, it’s a novel that looks at a group of people in a stunningly sympathetic way that first delineates the choices they make, and then, over the course of the novel, takes the time to unearth the origins of those choices.  As such, I found it to be one of the most deeply empathetic novels I had read in a long, long time.  Egan doesn’t excise her characters’ choices, nor does she overly explicate them.  She places her characters in moments in time and allows them to be individual.

I think it’s fair to say that this is the most generous novel I have read in a long time.  Generous in terms of what she does with her characters, generous in terms of what she allows  her characters.  Most writers set up their characters and their narratives to conform to a novel’s “meaning.”  Egan refuses.  She’s strikingly empathetic (like Homes).  The space this allows for the reader is magnificent and welcoming.  Egan’s work in this novel is noteworthy because she can understand sympathy and empathy as complicated and sophisticated emotional responses to complex moments.

Plus, what she does with Powerpoint is pretty much beyond belief.  You might think I’m kidding but I’m not.  It’s a tour de force.  A powerpoint as an emotional blunt object that will bludgeon you with love.  I’m not joking.  Jenny Egan is not to be messed with.  She’s a writer, a great one.  Her novel must be read and engaged with.  She has always been a lovely soul, but little did I know way back when just what this woman could do.  And, for me, she points me toward an aesthetic that insists on a world beyond the self, toward others, beyond the narcissistic.

It’s not a new notion: Don ‘t worry about the fireworks, there’s really interesting things going on in the trenches.

Inside the Mind of Don Draper

The use of a voiceover to articulate Don Draper’s thoughts in “The Summer Man,” the eighth of the fourth season of Mad Men, was an important stylistic moment in the history of the show.  In my memory, it was the first time that the show had presented Don’s thinking in an explicit way, as exposition, and not through action or through the inscrutable face of actor Jon Hamm.

Yes, Don had read Frank O’Hara’s poetry aloud at the end of the first episode in the second season, and that reading and the subsequent uses of O’Hara and his collection told us much about Don’s frame of mind.  But let’s face of it, pretty much all of what we make of Don is almost always conjecture.  For all of the past seasons, we’ve watched Hamm stare at characters without speaking, look out the window, and gaze into the middle distance, and we try to read his face for glimpses into what is happening in his head.  What is he thinking?  What does he make of this situation?  What is he planning?  We don’t know, not really.  We base our judgments on Hamm’s half smile, or on the conviction that we truly do understand Don as an individual and how he would respond to the situation.  But we don’t know Don, not really.  That’s why this fourth season began with the question, in the first episode, “Who is Don Draper?”

There are lots of answers to that question, only one of which is Dick Whitman.  He’s an accomplished ad man, now an award winner.  He was once a fur salesman, trying to talk Roger Sterling into giving him a try at his agency.  He’s a husband who strayed, a father who is both good with kids but who doesn’t spend much time with them.  He’s a ladies man who for most of this season struck out repeatedly with women, having sex only with a prostitute and a secretary who seemed to want to say no but perhaps thought it might serve her well at the agency to acquiesce.  He’s younger than Roger Sterling and Bert Cooper but identifies with them over the “kids,” his name for the rest of his colleagues at work at SCDP.  He admires Sonny Liston but tends to adopt a Cassius Clay approach when he deals with clients, trying to bully them into submitting to his vision, especially through his silver tongue.  He’s a conundrum, the proverbial mystery wrapped in an enigma, etc.

It has seemed to me that this has always been part of the point – to not really know Don.  No one in the show does.  They only know parts of him.  This gave the emotional power to his teary confession to Peggy during the previous episode, when he hears that Anna Draper has died, that she was the only one who ever knew him.  Don was always been different in California with Anna – more at ease, relaxed, funny, goofy even.  He seemed to like that she had his number and liked to tease him.  She clearly loved him – him, not the “Don Draper” that everyone in New York knows.  With her gone, he is only the man in quotes, “Don Draper,” and no longer the man Anna knew.

But he wants to be that man.  His moment of bonding with Peggy seemed to signal the start of a change.  He has begun to curtail the heavy drinking.  He begins to go to the New York Athletic Club to swim, as a way to get in shape, but also because in the water, as he says, he is “weightless.”  He is shedding something or building anew; letting go of the past or returning to his natural self: pick your metaphor, but either way a change is in the works.  He wants to be a different man.

And so the use of the voiceover seems a distinctively appropriate stylistic choice for Matthew Weiner to make.  For longtime viewers it’s not only jarring to the ear, it’s something of a shock to actually hear what Don is thinking.  It doesn’t so much matter what we make of those thoughts – shallow! profound! troubled! determined! – what matters more, in one sense, is that we are privy to them.  This is decidedly new, and the choice of using the voiceover is as much a signal of change for the viewer as the actions that Don takes.

Things start to turn for Don in the episode. He starts to drink less and seems more put together at work.  He begins to get himself into better physical shape.  Bethany, after meeting Betty, warms up considerably to Don, even going so far as to give him fellatio in the back of the cab, a noted difference from her more “prim” stance at the beginning of the season.   Don asks out a female colleague he respects, but he doesn’t try to bed her that night, instead saying good night to her in the cab.  (This makes for a wonderful contrast to the earlier scene with Bethany, but also harkens back to what Bethany said weeks ago – perhaps Don has learned from her?)

And then there was the interesting interaction with Henry Francis, who sought to establish a power differential with Don by telling Don to come pick up his things from the house, and then leaving them on the curb and refusing to even acknowledge Don’s presence when he comes to get them.  This is a curious move for Henry to make, considering that he’s living in Don’s house and that Don could kick him out whenever he’d like, considering that the Francis’s have vastly overstayed their allotted time to find a new home.  I very much enjoyed the ending, when Don decides at the last minute to attend Gene’s birthday party and to assert his patrimony.  This is not only a signal to Betty that he plans to stay in Gene’s life and to serve as his father.  It’s an assertion to Henry that this is indeed still his house, that these children are his, and that no one can ever keep him away from special events in their lives.  Don is not cowed by Henry’s political connections.  Henry means nothing to him.  It’s telling that Don doesn’t spend his time at the party looking longingly at Betty and the family scene, lamenting his absence from the home.  Instead it is Betty who looks at Don playing with Gene.  What is she thinking?  Is she longing for Don in some way?  Still wanting him?

If only we had a voiceover for her…

Understanding Loss and What Work Does: Don Draper, Peggy Olson, and Their Bond

Near the end of last season’s final episode of Mad Men, Don Draper says to Peggy Olson, explaining how advertising ultimately operates as a complex confluence of nostalgia and wish fulfillment, and explaining why she should join him in his new firm, “Because there are people out there who buy things, people like you and me. And something happened, something terrible. And the way that they saw themselves is gone. And nobody understands that. But you do. And that’s very valuable.”  In convincing Peggy to join him at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, Don makes clear that Peggy matters to him as a colleague.  He values her ideas, her insight, her instincts.  He recognizes her talent, her gift, a gift much like the one he himself possesses.  Don wants Peggy to work for him and with him; he imagines a future in which they can do great things together.  Finally, in this past week’s episode, Matthew Weiner began to play out the culmination of Don’s sales pitch to Peggy and finally took us further into their relationship than he has for quite some time.

During the current season, Don’s treatment of Peggy has not been everything she would like it to be.  Although she clearly is one of the main creative minds at SCDP, she doesn’t always get either the respect or the accolades that she would like from her colleagues and from her boss.  Although she was involved in the creation of the Glocoat advertisement that has won Don praise from the first episode of the season, he has not acknowledged her contribution, and went so far as to bring Joan to the Clio award ceremony instead of Peggy.  She not only felt slammed by this snub, but took another blow when Don insisted that she work with the ever-frustrating (and often loathsome) Stan Rizzo.

Don tells her that she can learn some things from Stan, but Peggy has a hard time seeing how.  Stan is lazy and yet a braggart.  Moreover, he is something of a Neanderthal mixed with a countercultural wannabe, telling Peggy that she’s too rigid, stuffy, frigid even.  It’s a great scene when she calls Stan on his bluffing and disrobes, forcing him to do the same.  He can’t handle it and she reasserts her authority on the creative side.  Objectively speaking, when looking at the firm, after Don, there’s Peggy and then there’s everybody else.  No one else has the chops to match her, and she’s on the march forward and upward.

But here’s the problem – Peggy can’t seem to get Don to see her this way, as the one with talent, or at least to acknowledge publicly or even privately her talent and her work ethic.  Instead he tends to berate her and belittle her.  The pitch that she and her colleagues made for a Samsonite ad starring Joe Namath wasn’t bad, at least by today’s standards, but he called the use of an endorsement lazy.  He repeatedly tells her that she’s not working hard enough and makes her work over the weekend or asks her to stay late at the office after everyone has left.  She has disagreed with him before on some of his responses to her pitches, but until this episode, she never went back at him hard.  In this episode, though, she started speaking to Don in a way that no one at the office really does.  She was mad and she let him know it. She tells him she’s mad that he doesn’t show her respect or have gratitude for her hard work and that he makes her work with Stan.  And she tells him that she resents that he has not acknowledged her contribution to the winning Glocoat commercial.  She lets him have it.

And it’s hard not to enjoy Peggy’s outburst as a viewer.  Often, Don is treated like a guru, like a creative genius with the golden touch.  In the first episode of the season, he was so sure of his vision that he kicked the people from Janzen out of the office and refused to have anything to do with them anymore.  His approach, in that moment, was elevated to an ideology and he was the man in charge – giving interviews to the Wall Street Journal and serving as the face of the firm.  But since that episode viewers have seen this myth of Don as the man with the golden touch as a mirage: his pitch of the Life cereal campaign was a failure that – according to the Life reps – went over the heads of their costumers and therefore failed at the most important level.  His response – and yes, I recognize he was drunk – was pathetic.  He became nothing more than a guy throwing out taglines without ideas, desperately trying to please the client.  It was hard to watch, sure, but it was also comeuppance for how her treats others – clients and colleagues.  Peggy, of course, was horrified.  And angry.  And that was before Don made her work all weekend with Stan Rizzo in a hotel room.  When she went to his apartment on Sunday night to tell Don that he had made a mistake with the Life cereal, there was palpable joy on her face and in her voice when she told him that “HE had to fix it.”  It’s rare that anyone gets to speak to him like that, and his hangdog look was something she relished, even if she’s shocked the next day when he hires Danny as a way to fix it and do penance for his behavior for the previous three days.

And that’s the part of the writing of Mad Men that is so enjoyable.  Peggy doesn’t get exactly what she wants.  Don isn’t flummoxed by what happens with Peggy.  He doesn’t have to take back the line; instead, he just hires Danny and then the firm owns it.  Plus, he gets in good with Roger by hiring his wife’s nimrod cousin.  Peggy doesn’t yet know all the angles that Don does.  She actually ISN’T as good as he is.  Not yet anyway.

And he’s in charge, the creative director.  Which he reminds her of when she complains to him this week about his lack of respect and gratitude and acknowledgement.  When Peggy claims that the Glocoat commercial was her idea, he calls her contribution essentially a kernel.  He eventually agrees that it was an essential part of it, but he doesn’t budge on the fact that she had an idea and he brought it to fruition and in the process improved it and made it successful.  And that in doing so he was not only doing his job, he was being very good at his job.  He clearly delineates the line between them.  She works for him.  When she says that she wants more respect and more appreciation, he says, as my wife reminded me, “That’s what the money’s for!”  Don reinforces that the work that they do isn’t about receiving love, it’s about doing the work, being good at it, and finding satisfaction in both the process and the product.  It’s where he’s happiest.  It’s also where Peggy is happiest.  Which is at least in part why she stays late that night and works all those other weekends.

Though Peggy might want to get some digs in at Don – and he deserves them for his behavior – she also wants his approval as her boss and her mentor.  She wants him to see her as valuable, as good, as central to what they do at the firm.  In the morning, after he gets the call that Anna Draper has died and as he sobs in front of her, she comforts him and she starts to see what has led to his boorishness over the last few weeks.  The drinking, the sloppiness in the job, the desperation have been a product of Anna’s illness and impending death.  He says that Anna was “the only one who knew who I really am” and Peggy dismisses that by patting his back and implying that no, she knows who Don is.  Don is a product of his work: not an advertisement itself but a product of the process of the work.  She knows this because that is what she is too.  Earlier in the episode, she was aghast that Mark would invite her family to what was supposed to be an intimate birthday dinner for the two of them.  “He doesn’t know me,” she says.  The language here is exactly that which Don uses when Anna dies.  To know Peggy, as to know Don, one must know what drives them.  And to know that, you should know what they do and how they do it.

This is how Peggy and Don make their peace with one another – through the commonality of their purpose, through their work and ultimately through respect and trust.  They are two of a kind, for each of them work and the imagination are central.  They are “creative” – meant as both an adjective and a noun, as in the creative side of the firm.  But being creative is hard work and it’s a process and you can’t shortchange it.  It’s important to recognize that the symbol of their bond – their touching of hands – comes after Don shows Peggy his idea for the Samsonite ad and she agrees that it is good.  The tone of the episode is deeply intimate; it’s not romantic in any particular way but the intensity of their connection is powerful and drives the dialogue and the action.  The way that these two characters speak to each other is quite unlike the dialogue that anyone else has – they push and prod and give it to one another.  They stand up to one another.  She desperately wants his approval but she won’t just give in to his demands quietly.  And he needs someone with whom he can parry and she’s ultimately the only one in the office who he sees as worthy of the interplay.  He allows her to give him shit, even if and while he reminds her that he is her boss.  And while they reveal elements of their personal lives to one another that they won’t show to others – he grew up on a farm, she is nervous about ever finding a mate, she has had a child that no one knows about, and he was arrested for drunk driving and she bailed him out – they trust one another enough to know that they can reveal these things to one another and yet these details do not have to be the things that define their relationship.  They can know these things about one another and can move beyond them; their secrets, in other words, are not what defines each of them in the other’s eyes.

At the end of the episode, Don has cleaned up.  He looks “fresh” – reborn, in a way, much like he was at the end of the second season when he walked into the Pacific Ocean in his clothes.  And Peggy has seen him through.  She stayed with him, supported him, brought him through the dark night of the soul.  She too will freshen up and she will return and they will join together in their work.  This is when they touch hands and acknowledge that they know each other.  Again, at the end of the third season, Don asked Peggy to join him by telling her that “there are people out there who buy things, people like you and me. And something happened, something terrible. And the way that they saw themselves is gone. And nobody understands that. But you do. And that’s very valuable.”  Peggy does understand.  And of course Don does too.  And it’s in their understanding of loss that they understand something deep, powerful, and intimate about one another.  And it’s through their understanding of it that they will now move forward.

Mad Men and Male Anxiety

What, pray tell, was the deal with the phallic references in last week’s episode of Mad Men?

Let’s go over just some of them.  The name of the bar that Don and Roger and Joan head to after winning a Clio?  The Pen and Pencil. We had Stan Rizzo throwing pencils up into the ceiling and getting them to stick.  Peggy calls Stan on his bluster, though, and disrobes and encourages him to.  In the face of her calling his bluff, he “shrinks up.”  She reminds him of this the next day, when someone asks him if Peggy helped with the copy they came up with, and Peggy holds up her fingers just a touch apart and says, “Just a little bit.”  Funny, but brutal.  She totally emasculated Stan.

Which is similar to what happens with Don.  Don picks up a woman at The Pen and Pencil, but leaves his Clio award behind there.  He’s slumming with that woman, and he heads into a bender that leaves him in something of a blackout.  When he next wakes up it’s not the next morning, but the one after that.  He’s lost a day, and he’s in bed with Doris, a waitress who has seen better days.  Betty gives Don a hard time, and for good reason.  He’s missed his fatherly commitment to his kids to see them on Sunday morning.    To top things off, Doris calls him Dick, which is what he’s been acting like.  He’s just about hit bottom, it seems to me.  He cleans up for Monday morning, swallows his pride by hiring Danny Siegel, and tells his secretary to get his Clio back.  He’s trying to get some semblance of his manhood back, as he returns to being “Don Draper,” and not “Dick.”

It seems to me that this season has been a lot about gender poltics and gender power relations. This is an interesting development, one in keeping with the times and the rise of feminism.  At SCDP, we’ve seen this playing out with Peggy and with Faye, and with Alison, Don’s secretary.  It seems to be coming to a head.  It seems to me that the women are on the rise, for the most part, and that the men are struggling a bit to stay on top and to keep [it] up.  (Sorry for all of the double entendres there, I just couldn’t help myself!)

It will be interesting to see how they continue this thread, but it seems to me that as Don continues to live on his own, no longer married to Betty, he’s very much in the middle of a struggle that he’s not winning.  There’s a ton of male anxiety going on in this show and the women are slowly taking on greater and greater authority.

Songs that are Horrible (#2)

Months back now, I wrote a piece about Oasis and their frighteningly catchy song, “Wonderwall.”  For a while now I’ve thought that I should try to create a series: songs you like but that are absolutely brutal in terms of their writing.  And while there are many, many possibilities to consider in this category – as in, have you heard almost any rock song in the recent past? – I’m only now prepared to take the next step.  Let’s create a series.

The band we need to address, the band I’ve often thought needs to be next, is the Red Hot Chili Peppers. There are so many choices to consider, so many songs that might make the list.  Here’s the beginning of “Dani California”:

Getting born in the state of Mississippi
Papa was a copper and mama was a hippie
In Alabama she would swing a hammer
Price you gotta pay when you break the panorama
She never knew that there was anything more than poor
What in the world does your company take me for

Black bandanna, sweet Louisiana
robbin’ on a bank in the state of Indiana
She’s a runner, rebel and a stunner
On her merry way sayin; baby whatcha gonna
Lookin’ down the barrel of a hot metal .45
Just another way to survive…

Brutal.  That’s a portrait?  It’s as if Anthony Kiedis, singer and main songwriter, said to himself, “I know, let’s play with the names of states and riff on their vowel endings!  If I do that long enough, surely some type of character sketch will emerge!”  Well, Kiedis does like to rhyme, and he always seems able to find one.  Not a good one, no, but a rhyme nonetheless.  That’s the problem with the Chili Peppers’s lyrics.  They’re always slave to the rhyme.

Here’s a section of”Otherside”:

I heard your voice through a photograph
I thought it up; it brought up the past
Once you know you can never go back
I’ve got to take it on the otherside

I like this stanza; indeed I think it has an interesting conceit in the opening two lines of how we imagine and interact with photographs that we keep, that we hold onto and gaze at.  But then see what follows.
Centuries are what it meant to me
A cemetery where I marry the sea
Stranger things could never change my mind
I gotta take it on the otherside
Take it on the otherside
Take it on
Take it on

I’m going to call these lines a disaster.  The first three lines here make zero sense, not only in the context of what came before them, but in and of themselves.  A disaster.  But what about the chorus?  Maybe things will improve?

How long, how long will I slide
Separate my side; I don’t,
I don’t believe it’s bad
Slit my throat
it’s all I ever…

Hard to fully see what’s going on here, but perhaps I’ll let it “slide” (see what I did there?!?!).  What follows you ask? Let’s see:
Pour my life into a paper cup
The ashtray’s full and I’m spillin’ my guts
She wants to know am I still a slut
I’ve got to take it on the otherside

A scarlet starlet and she’s in my bed
A candidate for my soul mate bled
I push the trigger and I pull the thread
I’ve got to take it on the otherside
Take it on the otherside
Take it on
Take it on

I’m nor sure we need to go on.  When was the sluttiness and how does that fit in?  How did it change from “you” to “she”?  Why is the starlet “scarlet”?  Is she sunburned?  Has she not found a good sunblock?  Why did the candidate for the soulmate bleed?  Is pushing the trigger and pulling the thread somehow equivalent?

Oh, the questions, the questions.  What’s most painful in these songs is that the melodies are killer, that the band puts together unbelievable hooks, rooted to serious basslines, that they can harmonize, they can funk out, they can get intimate.  They have perhaps the greatest guitarist-bassist combo in the world (John Frusciante and Flea) and that Chad Smith’s drumming is actually pretty good.  Hell, Kiedis’s singing has improved!  But my God, the lyrics!!!!!!

Finally, let us consider “Scar Tissue:”

Scar tissue that I wish you saw
Sarcastic mister know it all
Close your eyes and I’ll kiss you ’cause
With the birds I’ll share
With the birds I’ll share
This lonely view
With the birds I’ll share
This lonely view

Push me up against the wall
Young Kentucky girl in a push-up bra
Fallin’ all over myself
To lick your heart and taste your health ’cause
With the birds I’ll share
This lonely view…

Blood loss in a bathroom stall
Southern girl with a scarlet drawl
Wave good-bye to ma and pa ’cause
With the birds I’ll share
With the birds I’ll share
This lonely view
With the birds I’ll share
This lonely view

Soft spoken with a broken jaw
Step outside but not to brawl
Autumn’s sweet we call it fall
I’ll make it to the moon if I have to crawl and
With the birds I’ll share
This lonely view…

Scar tissue that I wish you saw
Sarcastic mister know it all
Close your eyes and I’ll kiss you ’cause
With the birds I’ll share
With the birds I’ll share
This lonely view
With the birds I’ll share
This lonely view…

Let’s begin with the positives.  I actually think the image of emptiness and loneliness is vaguely captivating.  I think the notion of the rough night out isn’t half bad.  And I think the marriage of these two has potential, kind of.  But not like this.  Somehow the notion of closing your eyes and kissing is the thing that brings together these two disparate threads – the night out on the town and the loneliness of the chorus.  It just doesn’t mesh in any way that makes much sense.

I suppose one could argue it need not.  I love that on Kiedis has apparently claimed that the words came to his unconscious mind.   (Unlike his other songs – ha!) It’s an aesthetic approach, though, and one that somewhat helps us make sense of what he’s doing as a lyricist.  Perhaps he’s not trying to make “sense.”  Perhaps he’s instead trying tot tap into something deeper – unconscious, primal, Jungian.  Perhaps.  But I kind of doubt it.

Ultimately, I actually don’t mind listening to these guys rock out, at least not that much.  The lyrics are just rdiculous.  But the band has serious chops.  I try to take them wholistically, almost beyond songs.  Within an individual song, there are great moments of musicianship, as a whole they display great craftsmanship.  Taking songs as a discrete unit, though, they’re often insupportable.

It’s kind of a shame, I guess.  But another part of me doesn’t ever want them to change.  Is it so bad to say that all of this is part of their charm?