Thursday, September 23, 2010

Moments of Great Poetry in Modern Music

Here's a compounding problem.

     You are an SPM leaver. You couldn’t get to college and your family has been talking about you being too grown up to be continuously fed free of charge. So you take up a job, pushing fish carts in Pasar Borong Selayang in the daytime. By your third months’ pay you could now afford a cheap acoustic guitar with some unheard-of made-in-China brand that they sell by the dozen in Popular bookstore.  So by night you just gather up a few friends by the corner of some sidewalk and play some songs loudly, with Karim, who drives his boss around in a limo in the daytime, to beat on some inverted tin pails as drums.

      Into the sixth month you found out you could create a melody or two, showed it to some Aziz Bakar’s former driver and HE hooked you up with him. It is not too long that they think that you have some natural musical talent (never mind that you can’t tell a clef from a bass) and they decide to put an album out. You now decide to call your group with some fancy western-sounding names but then, see, you haven’t READ that much things in English and thereby your vocab is quite limited. So you just decide on some names like “Expedisi” or “Left-handed” or the more digestible and pronounceable "Search" or "Wings" or some other monosyllables. Soon enough, your fans even stretch out to reach those Malaysian students who reside in America and THEY would like to hear you perform and would you please come over and perform in ‘Frisco and… uh… while you are at it, woo these local Americans by your music ... so can you please write some English songs too? The latter you definitely couldn’t do, but you can perform in some grade-B night club, yes.

     And you still remember the head-banger audience staring at each other unfazed, uncomprehending, uninterested, when you announced loudly into the microphone, “We will Rock YOOOUUUouuuuuu!!”. Neither us, nor them, nor you yourself, know what THAT means, of course.

     Yes, there had been attempts to write “English songs” by non-English speaking artists, but see, writing songs is not about melodizing translated proses into English (some of which resulted in nothing more than just a long essay about certain topics chopped off at certain strategic points to make them look like poetry) but rather the transposition of ideas into as economical and as terse a verse as elegance allows.

So folks. No poems from Leman Pulut today. (And Yes, I do have many more in store mode, waiting for me to just click the “Publish” button for it to be published in this blog). Instead I would like to talk a little about poetry in a most unexpected setting and underrated circumstance: that of the lyrics of songs. When stripped bare, I think it is not too far fetched to say that almost 90% of all song lyrics are nothing more than the glorification of love between two human beings (or 88.25% or 92.46% --- what the heck, who the hell cares? It's not that I am Pornthip!). It’s love this, love that. It’s a bore, isn’t it? So let’s study some of the most beautiful poetry in modern music today.

Take a look at the almost Shakespearean ode that Anthony Banks wrote for the Genesis piece “Cinema Show” below. It is still about love. But to intersperse it with innuendos and Greek mythology? 

  Take a little trip back with Father Tiresias
  Listen to the old one speak of all he has lived through
  I have crossed between the poles
  To me there’s no mystery:
  Once a man, like the sea I raged
  Once a woman, like the earth I gave
  In fact there is more earth than Sea”

Words are abuzz amongst fans and non-fans alike in saying that Pink Floyd’s “Echoes” is perhaps the most beautiful song ever written, if one could stand its 23-minute symphony-class length.  I don’t know whether they do deserve that envelope, but the song's accompanying surrealistic lyrics by Roger Waters surely would stand up to the reputation if that is to be really so:

      Overhead the albatross hangs motionless upon the air
      And Deep beneath the rolling waves in labyrinths of coral caves
      The echo of a distant sound comes willowing across the sand
      And everything is green and submarine
      And now this is the day you fall upon my waking eyes
      Inviting and inciting me to rise
      And through the window in the wall 
      Comes streaming in on sunlight wings
      A million bright ambassadors of morning”
          --- "Echoes", Pink Floyd

It is said that Jacques Cousteau loved this piece so much that he repeatedly played it during his Caribbean adventures.

And who could capture the intricacies of fidelity, jealousy, vengeance and tragedy as beautifully as Pete Sinfield’s “The Letters” here:-

      With quill and silver knife, she carved a poison pen
      Said to her lover’s wife: “Your husband’s seed has fed my flesh”
      And like a leper’s face, that tainted letter grazed
      The wife with choke-stone throat, ran to the day with tear-blind eyes.
      Impaled on nails of ice, and raked with emerald fire
      The wife with soul of snow, with steady hands begins to write:
      "I'm still, I need no life to serve on boys and men
      What's mine was yours is dead I take my leave of mortal flesh"
                --- "The Letters", King Crimson

Pete Sinfield happens to be my favourite poet.  Reading his “Prince Rupert Awakes” for King Crimson below, one is not sure whether one is reading Byron or a modern poet:-

      Go Polonius or kneel
      The reapers name their harvest dawn
      All your tarnished devil's spoons
      Will rust beneath our corn.
      Now bears Prince Rupert's garden roam
      Across his rain tree shaded lawn
      Lizard bones become the clay-
      And there a Swan is born
           --- "Lizard", King Crimson
Apart from publishing a book of poetry of his own, Pete Sinfield goes on to write poetic lyrics for some other people, a notable one of which would be to accompany Emerson Lake and Palmer’s gargantuan “Pirates”:-

      "Who'll make his mark", the captain cried.
      To the devil drink a toast.
      We'll glut the hold with cups of gold
      And we'll feed the sea with ghosts
      I see your hunger for a fortune
      Could be better served beneath my flag 
"Pirates" - ELP

The following is by Yes’s Jon Anderson.  At first glance it would seem that the singer laments and pines for his/her lover as normal love songs do, but upon closer scrutiny, (and knowing Yes’ penchant for the Mystical and Spiritual) the song is really about a slave longing for his Lord, much in the same way as the pinings of the ancient sage Plotinus’ “The flight of the one to the One”:

      Soon, oh soon the light,
      Pass within and soothe this endless night
      And wait here for you: Our reason to be here.
      Soon, oh soon the time,
      All we move to gain will reach and calm;
      Our heart is open: Our reason to be here.
                                                               "Gates of Delirium" - Yes

Not all lyric poems are classically-sounding. From the ‘60s Art Scene and Flower-Child era comes the following piece by Grace Slick. If ever there is a censorship on poetry, this one could rank high above, with its glorification of psychedelias and cosmic mushrooms:

One pill makes you larger, 
one pill makes you small
And the one that mother gave you 
does nothing at all
Go ask Alice when she’s ten feet tall.
         “White Rabbit” - Grace Slick, Jefferson Airplane

How about Ian Anderson’s “Locomotive Breath” below. Is it about the grieving of an old man agonizing over a wasted life, or about old death himself in a macabre setting?:-

      In the shuffling madness of the locomotive breath,
      runs the all-time loser, headlong to his death.
      He feels the piston scraping -- steam breaking on his brow --
      old Charlie stole the handle and the train won't stop going --
      no way to slow down.

      He hears the silence howling -- catches angels as they fall.
      And the all-time winner has got him by the balls.
      He picks up Gideons Bible -- open at page one --
      old Charlie stole the handle and the train won't stop going --
      no way to slow down. 
        --- "Locomotive Breath", Jethro Tull

Oh well, we won't be achieving THAT kind of poetry in the Malaysian music scene anytime soon. Meanwhile, just be content with Sarimah Ibrahim's take at being a bard-ette, sic and all:-

      Don't say that you will be there to comfort me,
      Cos when it comes to love its mysery,
      Made a fool for you, just like our mtv,
      You smile i cried never knew what I felt inside,
      Oh now you say that you got the game on me,
      That is just the way of saying you are a waste of time,
      You lied, i cried, you mean that you broke my heart,
      Pack your bags get out of my life

Just like our MTV? Hehehe. At least she got that part right :-).

The musical pieces accompanying the poetry above are in itself a delight to the ear. They ARE beautiful, and belongs to a class of modern music called Progressive, a cross between Classical and Rock Music. (p.s: these are Progressive Music. They are not punchy pop or rock tunes that delights the ear right from the beginning: you have to listen till the end to comprehend the messages and the musicality in its entirety.). 

The songs can be listened to here:-

1. Cinema Show - Genesis
2. Echoes - Wright, Waters, Mason, Gilmour
3. The Letters - King Crimson
4. Lizard - King Crimson 
6. Pirates - Emerson Lake and Palmer
6. The Locomotive Breath - Ian Anderson & Jethro Tull
7. Soon (Gates of Delirium) - Yes
8. White Rabbit - Jefferson Airplane

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