Life Isn’t Everything

Back in the day, I had piano lessons for a few years.

I started lessons when I was in Grade 5 at school, walking approximately 50 steps each week, across the road in front of my primary school to reach a little house that smelled of cooked cabbage and mothballs, where my piano teacher lived. She looked as if she had stepped out of a British sitcom from the same period – a middle-aged, saggy-jowled, possibly widowed woman, wearing her hair in a scratchy looking bouffant that was probably, in hindsight, a wig, her look completed with an abundance of chunky, tacky, jewellery, and and flouncy, swishy, acrylic blouses and skirts. There were lace doilies everywhere, and I seem to remember a fluffy dog as well, but that could be my imagination helpfully filling in any gaps in the stereotype.

My piano teacher - almost.  Picture longer hair and a fluffy dog.

My piano teacher – almost. Picture longer hair and a fluffy dog.


I attended for about 4 years, and quit at about the end of year 8, which means I got as far as Grade 3 in the Australian Music Examination Board curriculum.

The reason I gave up lessons at that point was not the teacher (by then my lessons were at high school) but because I was tired of learning the – to my 14 year-old mind – obscure classical pieces required by the Examination Board. No-one (other than piano students) recognised Fur Elise. I had a secret desire to be able to entertain a room (and ideally, the people in it) with my ability to leap onto the piano stool and whack out a “hit” that everyone recognised. (The way they did back in mid 18th Century). (This desire existed rather incongruously alongside my extreme self-consciousness and shyness that, even putting aside my inability to read music or play a “hit,” made that forever an impossible dream.)

Consequently, I quit piano lessons, spent a large portion of my measley pocket money on some sheet music, and defiantly taught myself to play 3 pieces of contemporary music. As this was the Christmas holidays of 1983 and I was about 14, the pieces I chose were: Song For Guy by Elton John, Theme from Chariots of Fire, by Vangelis, and The Rose, made famous around that time by Bette Middler because of the movie by the same name (which, thankfully, I’ve never seen). Over the next few months, or probably, years, I played those three pieces to death, much to the despair of my long-suffering family.

(Sidebar: A word of encouragement to those out there who fear they may never reach the giddy heights of being able to teach themselves “hits” at home from sheet music. I must confess that I could never actually read music without stopping to say slowly, Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit or All Cows Eat Grass, as learned in my very first music lesson, while working my way up the corresponding lines of the Treble or Bass Clef, to work out the notes. Sheet music was never anything more than a loose guide to what note to start on, or how the chords worked, as I worked out the tune and timing by ear and then just memorised how to play the piece. If I can do it, anyone can.)

At high school, two years of compulsory Music Theory instilled me with the confident assurance that Carmen is an opera about a woman called Carmen. I recall nothing more. Consequently, although I love music, I can’t really write about it because I don’t have a sophisticated musical vocabulary that enables me to discuss the intricacies of the beat, the melody, the arrangements or the instrumentation (which could be the same thing for all I know.)


In Australia, Carmen and Mr Ed The Talking Horse are our two favourite celebrities and often host the Logie Awards Ceremonies together.

Pic: ABC

I can read, and write, however, so I’m on slightly more comfortable ground talking about lyrics. For one thing, lyrics are composed of words. I’ve written a few of those, so that is a good start. So occasionally, as in today, I delve into a post about lyrics that I like.

So, dear reader, just to keep us on track, although this post appeared at first to be about my childhood piano lessons, it is actually a post about lyrics. Do try and keep up. It’s my second post about lyrics – the first one can be found here. Perhaps one day my mediocre musings on other people’s lyrics will be syndicated as a weekly column in a dying major newspaper that senses it’s about to go bankrupt, but until that day, we can only dream, and then weep when the wine runs out.

Now, if you say “lyrics,” I say “tomato,” but straight after that momentary lapse, the word “lyrics” makes me think of revered singer-songwriters such as Leonard Cohen, John Lennon, Joanie Mitchell, Patti Smith, Tom Waits, etc. (sorry, Bob Dylan and Neil Young, but I think you’ll do fine without me.)  There is nothing I could say about these songwriters’ lyrics that hasn’t already been said by people far more qualified than myself, but here are a few favourite lines from some of those mentioned above:

You said love is touching souls;

surely you touched mine

cos a part of you pours out of me

in these lines, from time to time. (Joanie Mitchell – A Case Of You)

Lyrics can be funny, sad, nonsensical, quirky, bleak, clever, poetic, insightful, vulnerable, beautiful, or some combination of the above, and when the music fits perfectly with what’s being conveyed in the lyrics, it’s a match made in heaven.  Joanie Mitchell’s lyrics above capture a beautiful idea – love that melds souls – but the beauty in those lines is also the vulnerability revealed by the singer. The love she is thinking of is past, the relationship has now ended, and the extent to which that love has left its mark in her is apparently beyond her control. It sometimes “pours” out of her – a word that suggests tears as well as a stream-of-consciousness in her writing.


They say there was a secret chord

that David played and it pleased the Lord

But you don’t really care for music, do you? (Leonard Cohen – Hallelujah)


It’s probably the most well-known three lines from Cohen’s prolific songwriting career to date, but I decided to go with it because it’s classic Cohen. The first two lines begin as though a story is being told, evoking imagery from the Old Testament, but then, in a signature Cohen-like device, another dimension is added to the song. The singer cuts off the poetry with a prosaic question directed intimately at an imagined listener, revealing the artifice of the preceding lines, and making it sound like the story was part of some intimate conversation. But You don’t really care for music, do you? I like that twist in the perspective.


How do your pistol and your bible and your sleeping pills go?

Are you still jumping out windows in expensive clothes? (Tom Waits – Who Are You?)

I mentioned this line from Who Are You? in my previous post about lyrics, but as I’m attempting to write about favourite lines from well-known singer-songwriters, it deserves another whirl. It’s beautiful because it paints a visual picture, and in the context of the rest of the song, Waits seems to ask this question with gentle, tender sympathy for the desperate, lonely beings driven to such behaviour.

I’d like to go on, but I spent so much time talking about my piano lessons at the beginning of this post, that I’m going to have to wind up. I guess there are a few posts ahead on this topic (- editors of dying newspapers, take note.) But before I end, I’ll share one last lot of lyrics.

As I began writing this post, I looked up “Song For Guy” on Youtube, to make sure I was referring to the correct Elton John song, and after listening to 2 seconds of it, long enough to establish that it was indeed the right one, I let it keep playing while I wrote. As it played right through,  I discovered – or rediscovered if I ever knew this before – that there are lyrics at the end of what I had thought was an instrumental piece.


Perhaps I’m the only person who was not aware of this, but just in case anyone else out there was not, the lyrics are as follows:

Life isn’t everything

isn’t everything

isn’t everything

Life isn’t everything

isn’t everything

isn’t everything




It’s a strange phrase, isn’t it? After hearing those unusual lyrics, hidden at the end of nearly 4 minutes of music, curiosity led me to delve a bit further. According to Wikipedia, which describes the song as a ‘mainly instrumental piece of music,’ while Elton John was writing the piece, he found himself imagining that he was looking down on his own body, as if he had died. The next day, he found that his 17 year old messenger boy, Guy, had been killed in a motorbike accident the previous day. It’s not quite clear when he added those words in to the piece, but when someone has just died, the idea that life isn’t everything is a tempting one to grasp on to. At the same time, you feel that nothing can ever again be everything. Certainly not for the person who has died, but also, not for you.


In conclusion, for those who got lost along the way, here is a brief roadmap of this post.

It started with a fairly smooth drive through my childhood piano lessons, segued rather clumsily to a bumpy section about lyrics, and then came skidding to an awkward end, focusing on a song that I learned on the piano as a teen, which I had mistakenly believed all these years was a purely instrumental piece. Clearly the lyrics did not resonate with me previously, if I’d ever even realised they existed, but the serendipity of discovering the piece had lyrics, while writing this particular post, meant I had to write about it. Why? Because that is the rule*.


*There is no rule.




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  1. I had a piano teacher with a similar view of “modern” music. Even something as up to date and risqué as Abba filled him with horror (remembering that when I was a kid Abba were in the charts). Though I did manage to persuade him to let me try a couple of songs 🙂


    • At the time, I would have loved to learn Abba! Anything that had been in the “Top 30” charts in the past few years would have satisfied me. Alas, teaching myself “Song For Guy” was the closest I ever came.


  2. I was trying to teach myself some fun music on the piano around this same time. Also “The Rose”. And as well “The Dancer”. I am not at all musical but I could probably sit down at the piano and still play them. In fact I likely could remember the music better than my current phone number. I had the same longing, to be able to play interesting popular music by ear. Sadly, never realized, as it became clear that music was not my strength.


    • Although I never learned it myself, I think I could hum “The Dancer” if required to at gun point. Another standard fare for piano students wanting to branch out and run free. So to speak. My sister probably learned that one and killed it off over the ensuing years too.



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