This is an interview that is actually for next week, Valentine’s Day in specific. But today is my wife’s birthday, so it goes out to her.
1. what is your favorite love song (including who it’s by) and why? Please include specific lyrics you like. Is there a story behind why it’s special?
My first thought is “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” by Richard Thompson. This song contains love and death like the best of any classical love poems. Perhaps it has as much to do with the first time I heard it in the early 90s, after not only a divorce from Camper Van Beethoven but also a divorce from my long-time girlfriend, and being in such a disconnected headspace, I spent several years bartending in San Francisco, being mostly drunk and riding around on old motorcycles.
The first time I heard it was live. My friends and I went to Slim’s nightclub, some time in about 1992, and got there (after a few beers elsewhere) to a crowded club. Somehow somebody grabbed us to fill in spots at a table (there were tables set up on the floor for this show, I guess because it was “acoustic”) and the table turned out to be right in the front and center. Richard Thompson came out. We were sitting directly in front of him, and we had not yet heard his newest album, despite being huge fans and having immersed ourselves in his electric catalog and concerts previously. He played solo, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, and he opened with this song.
I remember actually crying by the end of the song.
I’m getting goosebumps now, just writing about it.
I know that the fact that I was a motorcyclist who was into old British (and Italian) bikes at the time didn’t hurt, and my states of mind was perhaps cavalier as regards my own mortality, but the song stands on its own outside of that world as a classic tragic love song of true lovers parted by death. In the song, Red Molly comments on how fine James’ bike is and he says, well, you know, red hair and black leather, that’s my favorite color scheme. And they are basically the item from then on. Of course, he’s a classic rebel character (which I have to say is a bit of cliché writing, of course; lazy Hollywood scriptwriters have used this one for 60 years now) and he admits to Molly that he doesn’t rate his chances so well, given that he “fights the law.” Of course, he gets shot by the cops, and they call Molly down to see him on his death-bed. But here’s where the song transcends the story: on his death bed, as he again claims his love and slips away into death, he slips her the keys to the bike, “I’ve got no further use for these.” The presentation is perfect, a single bard sings the song with a strongly bass-beated fingerpicked guitar (Thompson actually uses a flat pick and his middle and ring fingers!), and it’s even presented in a major key. The trajectory of the story tells you exactly how it’s gonna go from the beginning, and you’re drawn along for the ride, and feel the love, the despair and the acceptance of the affair and its conclusion. It’s amazing.
2. what makes a great love song? Examples?
This is a dangerous question as it begs a tree full of branched offshoots. First off, there are so many kinds: we can start with the basic idea of praising the beloved which has been around for, what, at least 5000 years? Exempli Gratia, all of the Song of Songs which is Solomon’s, from that Old Testament. Some of that shit is the sexiest love poetry ever. I think that even through the Greeks we had examples of that style, but it was already becoming the beautiful bittersweet that made the best love songs (Sappho, for example.) By the Romans (Propertius, Ovid) we had not only love, and love’s tragedy, but the “Odi et amo”: I hate and I love. So the irony of love was already in song 2000 years ago.
So what makes them great? Obviously if love weren’t a big part of life, these things wouldn’t mean shit. But the fact is, along with the basic genetic imperative to breed (only second to “don’t die!”) and our attempted civilization of self, we developed something that felt. And felt a lot. And since this feeling goes hand in hand with the gland in gland part, it has begat a ton of art. Songs have the advantage over other art forms in that they have music with them, and music expresses something extra-verbally that cannot quite be described but hits our areas of feeling things right in the, uh.. heart. You can have powerful music and make dumb love song lyrics and they will be strong enough to be convincing. Then the addition of the rock band’s physical wattage, well, you can be absolutely pushy and it comes across well.
But here’s where it gets troubling, what can make a great love song. I imagine if you take away the power of the music, and the lyrics can still do it, or if the music alone can do it (overture to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, for example) you have it, but then there’s the fact that there are as many great ones about how fucked love is as there are about how much I love you. And that’s the crux, probably why I listed the Richard Thompson song first. It’s fucked up: the dude dies, but the love is real and is essentially proven to be real by his giving her the keys to the bike as he leaves the physical world. The great songs are the ones that have the elements of how fucked or fucked up love is, all the while placing themselves fully within its power and loving every moment of it.
Yeah, yeah, it’s transcendent. That’s maybe the point of love, and of music, or at least the similarity of their affect. Both can take you out of the sequence of actual moments into a timelessness that seems to prove its reality simply by its presence. Perhaps that is also why music, love songs, are the best way to express love. Amy Denio once said to me that writing a love song was easy, it just had to say “I love you, I love you, I love you, you’re great, and besides you’re kinda cute.” (I took the challenge and made it into a song, called, appropriately “I Love You“.) The point here, I think, is that the “besides,..” part is what makes it a song. Ok, perhaps it’s not the best song, but it’s the part that comes in to break the pure transcendent part and shower it down to the crude earthy world.
Any of the “Love Hurts”, “Love is Strange”, “That’ll Be the Day”-type early rock songs adequately capture the tension between the feeling and the reality. The Beatles, of course, started with the purist praise style (“Love Me Do”, “I Want to Hold Your Hand”), but that ran out pretty quick and on into the weirdness of love. In fact, many of the mid-period Beatles “love” songs are downright creepy (especially George Harrison’s.)
Most of the “great” rock bands of the 1970s almost never really wrote directly about love, preferring the, um, bawdy side of love, and a whole lotta it. Did Led Zeppelin have any “love” songs? Their best were the real blues songs, which of course present the fucked up side of loving somebody, another universal trait. No wonder blues is still where people go when they want to say that!
The purest of the 60s and 70s love songs are probably the soul songs, and many of the good ones were written by professional song writers, like Bacharach and David, so who knows what they were trying to say. It was being said by the presentation, by the singer. These guys had been at it for a decade already. I mean “Anyone Who Ever Had A Heart” was 1963!
The love songs of the 80s and 90s vacillate still between the absolutely dumb and the how-fucked-up-is-love? type. By this time people became so jaded that it was probably tough to be beautiful. I mean, the Divinyls’ “I Touch Myself” is probably the best love song of the 90s. I have no idea if people have written love songs in the last decade. I tend to think that people became so caught up in the problem of actually having to express something by the 90s that they all became afraid they might actually say something that had meaning that they would have to back up, so they resorted to only expressing things in a parodic or ironic way so as to circumvent actually having to say anything at all. Pop is full of crap that is rendered meaningless on reflection, rap is mostly braggadocio, even the big rock stuff turns out to be lyrically meaningless when taken out of the context of the high wattage amplifiers (read the lyrics to “Siamese Dream” sometime.) Hopefully we’re coming out of this again now.
3. Any other thoughts on the subject? Stories, quotes you like about the subject, etc.
My bandmate David Lowery, who is the principle lyricist for Camper Van Beethoven (and Cracker), once said in an interview that he created characters from whose perspective he wrote because he didn’t think anybody could have enough personal material to fill 10 albums. I read that many years ago (can’t exactly remember when) but it stuck with me because I thought immediately that anybody who had been in love would have fodder for a billion albums. Richard Thompson, to go back to the start, does the same though, mostly… I know he writes on an office schedule now, but I tend to think that all that stuff with Linda Thompson may have provided a lifetime of source material. I’ve always tried to write from a semi-personal perspective; that is to say, the songs I sing mean something to me personally and usually the character presenting them is some form of myself. (You won’t hear many of these songs on the recent CVB albums, they’re spread out over my own albums since the late 1980s. The best one I ever wrote, I think [currently] is called “I Know You Know Me” or “Hey You”—there are two versions—and is on my album called “All Attractions” from 2012… check that one out!)
I’m a big believer in love songs. To sum up everything I’ve said here, music+love=transcendence. I personally have attempted to write a lot of them, and in Camper Van Beethoven, while David claims to be “in character” (most of the time), he’s produced several over the course of the band’s career that rival the best ever written. When we play, for example, “All Her Favorite Fruit” in concerts, I can literally feel the timelessness of it—to begin with, it’s set in the 19th century—and it builds in such a way as to convey the power of the transcendence of that unrequited love across the ages. And when the band feels that, we can pull the audience with us into that timeless and ineffable space. And that makes a great love song.