on life, music etc beyond mainstream

2016 13 Nov

Laura Barton’s favourite word in pop music is „that“

von: Manafonistas Filed under: Blog | TB | 1 Comment

Wonderful insights. Old Laura Barton text from 2007 (The Guardian). Inspired the idea with the three track-mixtape. Manafonistas have great ideas for oblique Christmas gifts. Make sure the person who will listen to that tape is mentally stable and free of depressive moods. Then it can be elevating. (m.e.) 

The most instantly appealing word in the whole of rock’n’roll is surely Little Richard’s „A-wop-bop-a-loo-mop-a-whop-bam-boom“ (or however you care to spell it) from 1955’s Tutti Frutti. As words go, it is a ludicrous confection, the cream cake in the baker’s window. It is a word voluptuously built for pleasure, a word that flies downhill with no brakes, a word of hurtling glee. It is at once entirely nonsensical and utterly coherent.

Rock’n’roll is littered with she-bops and uh-huhs and la-la-means-I-love-yous. There’s Lou Reed with his doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo, while the Crystals are da-do-ron-ronning, Kylie la la las, and the Beatles sing na na na na na na na na. Oftentimes the nonsense is sublime, a sort of Jabberwocky you can dance to. Your mouth seems to greet the words‘ unusual shapes the same way your tongue works at a loose tooth, or your lips learn to blow bubblegum.

As much as I enjoy the allure of this exotic mumbo-jumbo, my favourite word in songwriting history is actually exceedingly workaday, an unassuming, half-muttered „that“, the second-to-last word in Leonard Cohen’s Chelsea Hotel No 2: „That’s all, I don’t even think of you that often.“ Every single time I hear this line the „that“ catches me, as if someone has stepped on the hem of my skirt and dragged me backwards.

I was thinking about this on Friday night, sitting on my best friend’s sofa. She was playing Chelsea Hotel on the guitar, and we were drunkenly singing ourselves hoarse, the words tasting of wine and 1974, and the renditions interspersed with much late-night talking and an abortive attempt to remember the lyrics to First There Was a Funeral. But we always came back to Leonard.

Chelsea Hotel is a quite hopeless song that I really shouldn’t play too many times in a row, else I grow thoroughly inconsolable. There are far more obvious words to seize upon within its 32 lines, there’s the seductive sway of „I need you, I don’t need you“, there’s the pleasing sparkling clarity of „sweet,“ there’s the limber way Cohen pronounces the word „jiving“ at the end of the chorus.

So I’m trying to work out why this word is so special. It’s hardly the star of the final verse – „I don’t mean to suggest that I loved you the best,/ I can’t keep track of each fallen robin./ I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel,/ that’s all, I don’t even think of you that often.“ – that role belongs to the „fallen robin“, its line two beats shorter, all fledgling and vulnerable. Meanwhile the „that“ sits quietly in the wings.

I once read a book about the art of songwriting, with a chapter on Cohen in which he said: „There are always meaningful songs for somebody. People are doing their courting, people are finding their wives, people are making babies, people are washing their dishes, people are getting through the day, with songs that we may find insignificant. But their significance is affirmed by others. There’s always someone affirming the significance of a song by taking a woman into his arms or by getting through the night. That’s what dignifies the song.“

And I suppose it’s the apparent insignificance of the word – as far away from the blowsy a-wop-bop-a-loo-mop-a-whop-bam-boom as one could imagine – that appeals. As if Cohen’s encounter with Janis Joplin in the Chelsea Hotel wasn’t quite as insignificant as they both pretended. It’s the „that“ which dignifies it.

I once stayed in the Chelsea Hotel just to hear the limousines wait in the street. It was 12 storeys high, red-bricked, and scaffolded, and the builders‘ plastic sheeting billowed about in the cold January air. We stayed in a strangely lit room, with mustardy walls and thick brown paint on the woodwork, it seemed as if everything was seen through American Tan stockings. Half the bathroom tiles were missing, and through the dimpled glass of the side window could be seen several years‘ worth of pigeon droppings. I recall lying on the unmade bed watching a talk show hosted by a man named Maury Povich, while we waited for the rain to pass. It was an unexceptional afternoon, in the kind of hotel room you overlook, but I think of it quite often.

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