“But if I really say it,
The radio won’t play it,
Unless I lay it between the lines.”
(Dave Dixon, Noel Paul Stookey, James Mason, “I Did Rock and Roll Music,” Performed by Peter, Paul and Mary)
The above lamentation is from a song from the early 1970s that has not weathered well. Artists named in it, Donovan, the Mamas and Papas, are relegated now to “oldies” radio stations. Those are disappearing now, along with the listeners.
There was pressure during that time to be free of censorship, usually concerning sex. In fact, there was a group from that time period, The Fugs, that simply bypassed the censors and let fly with masterpieces such as “Boobs a Lot” and “I Feel Like Homemade Shit.” We can easily see here how censorship restrained profound artistic expression.
The following piece is the hauntingly beautiful second movement of Beethoven’s Sonata Pathétique, performed by Freddy Kempf. It is a little over five minutes in length. I hope you take the time to enjoy it, feel its depth and passion.
In my judgment, the emotions on display here as Kempf plays this piece are genuine. What is he feeling? I can only speculate that it is love of an inspiring melody by a young man who has dedicated his life to performance art.
What emotion was Beethoven feeling when he wrote the piece? They didn’t speak openly of such feelings in that era, but I know that he suffered on occasion from unrequited love. Perhaps he had experienced something that all of us have at one time or another, a deep emotional bonding to a lover? I hope so. He had a hard life.
Now comes the modern era. Below is a video of Billy Joel in concert in 1984 singing the composition This Night. (Click on “Watch this video on YouTube” to be taken there – I wanted to show a live performance for comparison to Kempf.)
I don’t get the depth of feeling from Joel as from Kempf. He is a good performer who openly admits that rock and roll has made his fingers into hammers on the keyboard. He seems to be going through the motions. He has probably played the piece a thousand times, and is tired of it.
Classical music is usually free of copyright so that musicians like Joel are free to borrow. To his credit, on the Innocent Man album he gives credit to himself and “L.V. Beethoven” for composition of this piece. The chorus of This Night is just a stepped-up version of Pathétique.
Artists of Beethoven’s time and before were, I suppose, shackled by censorship. There was the ever-present Church – I imagine that if Bach did not write about Jesus, he would not have gotten paid. There were monarchs who could not be offended. So political expression was contained, and of course artistic license would not permit any references to sex.
What was the artist to do?
Their task was extremely difficult – to bring both open and permitted and subtle and forbidden emotion to the audience without the benefit of lyrics. They didn’t get to just really say it. I find Kempf’s piece above deeply moving, and Joel’s work a bastardization of the same piece. While Billy Joel is a talented musician who has written and performed some catchy melodies, the era he lives in has permitted open expression of our deepest emotions. Subtlety has gone out the window. What was Joel singing about in his song “This Night?” He had a fling with model Elle McPherson, apparently a memorable one.
What would art be without frames? We would simply have life. There would be no art. It is the restraints of space, that area within the frame, that forces the artist to make the most of it, to express within those boundaries the full range of human emotion. I am as frustrated as anyone with bowls of fruit or in-your-face nudes, but now and then come across a work of art that is simply moving. I don’t want to mess with anyone’s copyright, but once came across a work that was set after a rain storm. In it a man and a boy were wearing yellow slickers as they stood among puddles and fences. It was so moving. It was not about rain or puddles or pastures, but the father-son bond. The yellow slickers said it for us.
Here is a (supposed) Lennon McCartney piece, I Want To Hold Your Hand:
And when I touch you
I feel happy inside
It’s such a feelin’ that my love
I can’t hide
I can’t hide
I can’t hide
I am thick as crust on home-baked bread. I’ve known that song since I was a young teen, and did not realize the meaning of those lyrics. 58,000 times they’ve gone through my head. Then it struck me. I had been invaded by an ear worm. The song used the music as a vehicle for lyrics that were nothing more than sexual suggestion. They got it by the censors.
If only music these days would restrain itself to horny teens with erections. It is a vehicle for subversion. Without lyrics, it loses that power.
We live in an era where music without lyrics does not sell. A song like Creep, a Radiohead composition by Albert Hammond and Mike Hazlewood, is nothing without the teen-age angst it portrays in the words:
“But I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo.
What the hell am I doing here?
I don’t belong here.…”
In Beethoven’s time music was a rare treat for the privileged, only enjoyed in live performances with no way of storage. Creep can be heard by every disaffected youth a thousand times at will, when rebuffed in romance or for whatever cruelty lifes hangs on young kids. Uplifting, it is. Is it really necessary to feed that angst? Would it not be better to let it starve?
I am not sure that open expression of our deepest emotions is healthy. I don’t believe in “anger management.” I don’t imagine that every feeling of affection needs expression. I sense that deep feelings are powerful motivators. Verbal release dampens them, removes their importance, makes them humdrum and routine.
I am glad for Billy Joel that he and Elle had a tryst. It would have been better for all of us had he just hummed about it.
Note to readers: I am going on a three-week
bender vacation, and will not have anything to offer up here. The other writers, unlike me, have jobs and are very busy people, but can hopefully toss in some offerings. Please feel free to use this space for continuation of some great comment threads from prior posts. I will be back in mid-September.