Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Immerse your soul in love

It's no secret I utterly adore Radiohead. There's a Radiohead sticker on the pickups of my guitar (an instrument I got into because of the Oxford lads) and the OK Computer poster takes pride of place on my wall.

Like any good fan, I've been known to frequent the occasional Radiohead site in search of meaning behind the songs. Perhaps the most interesting is the immaculate closer to The Bends album, Street Spirit (Fade Out.) The song that speaks of cracked eggs and dead birds and blue houses touching the petrified protagonist had an unusual birth. Below are the words of singer/songwriter Thom Yorke speaking candidly about the track, transcribed from a long-lost interview and once-hosted at the now-defunct Follow Me Around:

'Street Spirit' is our purest song, but I didn't write it... It wrote itself. We were just its messengers... Its biological catylysts. Its core is a complete mystery to me... and (pause) you know, I wouldn't ever try to write something that hopeless... All of our saddest songs have somewhere in them at least a glimmer of resolve... 'Street Spirit' has no resolve... It is the dark tunnel without the light at the end. It represents all tragic emotion that is so hurtful that the sound of that melody is its only definition. We all have a way of dealing with that song... It's called detachment. Especially me... I detach my emotional radar from that song, or I couldn't play it... I'd crack. I'd break down on stage... that's why its lyrics are just a bunch of mini-stories or visual images as opposed to a cohesive explanation of its meaning... I used images set to the music that I thought would convey the emotional entirety of the lyric and music working together... That's what's meant by 'all these things are one to swallow whole' (sic) ... I meant the emotional entirety, because I didn't have it in me to articulate the emotion... (pause) I'd crack.... Our fans are braver than I to let that song penetrate them, or maybe they don't realize what they're listening to.. They don't realize that 'Street Spirit' is about staring the fucking devil right in the eyes... and knowing, no matter what the hell you do, he'll get the last laugh... and it's real... and true. The devil really will get the last laugh in all cases without exception, and if I let myself think about that to long, I'd crack. I can't believe we have fans that can deal emotionally with that song... That's why I'm convinced that they don't know what it's about. It's why we play it towards the end of our sets. It drains me, and it shakes me, and hurts like hell everytime I play it, looking out at thousands of people cheering and smiling, oblivious to the tragedy of it's meaning, like when you're going to have your dog put down and it's wagging it's tail on the way there. That's what they all look like, and it breaks my heart.

I wish that song hadn't picked us as its catalysts, and so I don't claim it. It asks too much. (very long pause). I didn't write that song.'

Deep, indeed. But is this Yorke being serious, or just acting facetious and wily as he often can be in interviews? If it is indeed a song that represents no light at the end of the tunnel, and mere darkness and hopelessness, it seems to be out of place on the album as a whole - an album that, whilst bleak at times, is ultimately fairly upbeat. Consider the case of title track The Bends, which Yorke has openly stated is a joke song and not meant to be taken seriously. The song features the line "I wish it was the Sixties/I wish I could be happy/I wish, I wish, I wish that something would happen" - a line Yorke discredits with the quote Do I you wish it was the Sixties? No! I don't wish it was the fucking Sixties - Levi's Jeans wish it was the Sixties - I certainly fucking don't".

Couple this with (Nice Dream), a song about a half-drunken dream Yorke experienced and wrote a song about. The opening lines are positive and (in admittedly a strange turn for Radiohead) happy, with Yorke crooning:

They love me like I was a brother
They protect me, listen to me
They dug me my very own garden
Gave me sunshine, made me happy

The second verse of the song is perhaps darker, with its imagery of an angel being unable to help Yorke for fear the sea would "electrocute us all." But maybe there isn't much to these words as what you'd think - the demo version of the track, which is floating around on the Interweb somewhere, has the second verse replaced with something much more in-line with the positivity of the song:

You cannot melt or unwrap me
I'm a sweet man made of chocolate
Your liquorice eyes will enrapt me
Will be creamy, soft and milky

The Bends is much too upbeat to finish with a song that is pure in darkness and so deeply depressing; so are Thom Yorke's words on it true, or just another in-joke victory on the blindly devouring musical press? Keep in mind, this is a man who wore shirts to interviews with the slogan 'Presse Nes Pas Avaler' - French for "Do not swallow the press" or literally do not believe what the press says, and has had high-profile spats with most of the top music magazines in the UK, including NME.

As is with most music, the only one who knows the true answer is probably the artist himself. A satisfying answer? Of course not. But that's part of the artform - the best music makes you bring something of yourself to it, rather than laying bare its visceral carcass for all to see.


Sufjan Stevens - Chicago (live at KRCW)

The Clientele - Since K Got Over Me


At 1:11 AM, Blogger El said...

A most beautiful article, Ryan. I really enjoyed reading. It's interesting how you doubt Thom's sincerity in describe the importance of Street Spirit. I like it when my musicians describe why they are so moved by a song, particularly if its their own. Cause at the end of the day they are releasing something very personal to a very wide, undefined audience and I can only imagine it would be strange and kind of invasive, yet still quite special at the same time..


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