Lay lady lay

I realise that some will see this as a sacrilegious thing to say on Good Friday, but I have admitted it on this blog before, so I’ll say it again regardless of the day: I’m not a huge Dylan fan.

Yes, I’m afraid it’s true. For this sin, I expect to have a few less followers by tomorrow afternoon (when the Northern Hemisphere catches up). The reason it will only be a few is because most followers don’t actually read the blog, as far as I can gather.

But back to Dylan.

Why is it that I never really took a liking for his music? Maybe his particular brand of folk-country-rock music is a taste I still have to acquire. I do like some folk music, and a lot of rock music, but truth be told, I’m not much for country, unless it’s a little bit alt. Then again, maybe it’s the nasal quality of the younger Dylan’s singing voice that I’ve never really liked, although that has now developed into a gravelly deep voice that I have no objection to.

But maybe, and most likely, it’s because I have traced the annoying, recurring misuse of the word lay in everyday conversation back to his 1969 song Lay Lady Lay. It seems clear that Dylan is to blame for the constant and blatant misuse of the word lay that I encounter in my day-to-day life.

The situation is getting so out of hand that I have started to wonder if I’m the only person left in the English-speaking world who still believes that there is a sentence structure where the word lie is correct and where lay sounds wrong – and also ignorant, or silly.

It does make me fear for the future of the human race. From giving up on lay and lie, it’s a slippery downward slope. The next thing you know, no-one is bothering to use an indicator when they change lanes, and it’s all because they just don’t care any more. They don’t care about good grammar, and they don’t care about the risk of causing an accident, writing off their car and/or yours, and causing injury to themselves and others. From there, it’s a small step to organised crime or party politics.

Now, I realise that the English language is a constantly evolving thing, and I applaud that. As it has become so ubiquitous, I can’t say when, in the evolution of the language, the change from lie to lay took place. Was there a memo about it that I missed? Not according to the Cambridge dictionary online, which says that lay means

to put something in a flat or horizontal position, usually carefully or for a particular purpose

to prepare a plan or method of doing something

and goes on to say that the verb lay must have an object.

Thus: Lay your work out on the desk; try to lay the baby down in the cot as quietly as you can; I am laying out the clothes I plan to wear tomorrow but I can’t find any clean socks because no-one in this house has put away any laundry for about 3 weeks.*

(While researching this topic, you may be interested to know that my research team came up with a quote from another blog – but promptly forgot what blog they found it on! – suggesting that, if used correctly, in a sentence that’s in the present tense, you should be able to replace the word lay with the word put. (Use the phrases above to try it at home for free!) According to this theory, if put doesn’t work then you should use lie.

Let’s try that test now.

Put lady put,

put across my big brass bed

Hmmm. It’s actually worse than lay, isn’t it. Definitely wrong. Which tells us that lie would be grammatically correct, although I can accept that it would not have sounded quite as catchy, and would have presented some difficult obstacles for the songwriter to get over.

Lie doesn’t rhyme with stay, for a start, a word that is tripping over itself in its eagerness to be utilised in the next verse. What word could Dylan have used in verse two, if he’d used lie in verse 1? Sky? Pie? Die? You can see that there is much more at stake in writing a song, than merely grammar. Had he stuck with correct grammar in verse one, the lady in the song may well have had to be killed off in verse 2, possibly by eating a poisoned pie, leaving the protagonist singing mournfully to the empty sky.

Bob Dylan (in a harlequin costume) tries correct grammar in the early stages of writing Lay Lady Lay.


The other thing Dylan achieves by using lay, is to very efficiently create an image using only two words.

Instead of speedily conjuring a scene of a woman draped languidly across a bed, opening the song with the words “lie lady lie”might cause the listener to initially suppose the song was about a woman who had deceived the singer, a misconstrued notion which would take until line 2 to be cleared up. Song lyrics need to be economical, you can’t waste a whole line having the listener set out down a conceptually wrong path, just for the sake of getting the grammar right. (Although in this case, if he had used lie, as previously covered, he would now have to rhyme lie with pie and die, so I suppose he could have solved this dilemma by turning the song into a ballad about his lying female associate who ends up getting what was coming to her via a few drops of arsenic in a beef and mushroom pie.)

So of course I’m not seriously criticising Dylan for using incorrect grammar in a song. I’m a firm believer in poetic licence in song writing (and poetry!), where other things are more important than grammar. We can wonder all afternoon about how the song would have unfolded if he’d used lie instead of lay, but the point is, poetic licence does not apply in every day speech, where one’s primary aim is to communicate clearly, not to set a rhythm, create a rhyme, or evoke an image using only 2 words.

So far, we’ve talked about how lay and lie are two separate verbs with different usage, but, just to prove how confusing English can be, even to native speakers, get this: lay is also the past tense of lie! Therefore, if speaking in the past tense, you can use lay without an object. Eg, I lay back on the daybed and imagined I was holidaying in the French Riviera.

But the reason I am frothing at the mouth, and have finally succumbed to ranting about it here, is because I don’t recall ever learning these lessons in grammar – indeed, I am quite sure I never learned any rules of grammar at school beyond nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs, and perhaps tenses. I don’t know what it means to conjugate a verb, as some good grammar-focussed blogs do when explaining the different uses for lie and lay. But despite the lack of formal training, I must have developed an ear for what is correct and what is not, and I am forever cringing at hearing lay used in the present tense, to replace the word lie. For example

I’ll get you all to start by laying on your mats (a yoga teacher)

She’s not feeling well so I told her to lay down (a colleague at work)

All I want to do is have a day off and lay around reading a book (overheard in a bookshop) (I find it hard to believe this person can actually read.)

I’m disheartened every time I hear this kind of misuse of the word lay, but I don’t correct people. To counteract the frustration I feel when I hear these misplaced phrases, I cheer myself up by quipping a witty response like Should we lay an egg on our yoga mat? Or should we lay some bricks? Of course, I don’t say this out loud, but only in my own head. And after I’ve chuckled, and congratulated myself on my wit, I make my own small protest, by lying on my yoga mat instead.


*a true story

**Fans of Dylan probably stopped reading after the second line of this post, but fans of yoga mats keen to read more about the yoga mat that starred in this post, should click on the tag, yoga mat, (below) to be taken to more scintillating yoga mat-related stories. 


Kool Thing

via Discover Challenge: Song

I’m slow off the mark at times. It must be nearly two weeks ago now that I saw a prompt on the Daily Post,  just one word, song. I was already 3/4 of the way through a different post, however, and I chose to finish that and let the other idea sit in the back of my mind, where I knew there were at least 100 different posts I could write with the word song as a starting point. After I’d published that other post and sat down to write something on song, it seemed the idea that had made its way slowly to the top of the pot was to write about this song, or more specifically, why I can’t listen to it any more.

When I hear Kool Thing, by Sonic Youth, I feel a sort of cold chill run through me. It’s not a chill of excitement. It’s the chill of a complex mixture of negative emotions I can’t quite pin down. Let’s say that in that mix there is embarrassment, mortification, and anger, too, probably.

Those feelings, embarrassment, mortification and anger, are directed at myself. They are directly squarely at an image of myself, five years ago, on the night of Sunday September 11, 2011, standing at the sink, peeling potatoes, and listening to the Sonic Youth album, Goo.

Taking a step back, about 2 hours earlier on that same day, I had learned that my younger brother John had died suddenly, in his sleep, some time that weekend. Conversations had been had, phone calls to other family members had been made, and now I was left, alone. My partner had gone out, to drive across town and pick up my youngest brother; it was he who lived with John, and it was he who had phoned us with the news. My daughter was only 11; instinctively she kept herself busy in her room.

If my daughter had come out of her room she would have seen me in the kitchen, and to her everything would have looked normal – I was moving and functioning – but in fact I was not completely present; there was an invisible bubble around me, keeping me at arms length from reality. I had stopped somewhere, but I had a dim awareness that time was still moving on around me, and this told me that dinner needed to be made, so that we could eat something when the guys got back from across town. In this state of reality/unreality, I put on Goo, to listen to as I cooked.

I chose that album because John had always been a huge Sonic Youth fan, and I thought maybe that was what you do when you’ve just found out that your brother has died.

Or did I? I look back now and wonder what on earth I thought. Did I think that the most appropriate thing to do was to put on music that the deceased person had liked? Did I think that it was no different to fondly thinking about someone who was merely absent? Did I think I lived in a fucking movie?

Because if I had been an actor in a movie, an appropriate soundtrack would have swelled up in that scene of me peeling potatoes at the sink; music representing my brother, music that he had liked, lyrics that encapsulated something about him. And the music would be accompanied by a montage of snapshots, images of him throughout his life, existing in the head of the character I was playing, but visible for all the viewers at home, the way that TV and film can do.

But if I’d been an actor in a movie, it would all have been acting; my “brother” would be played by another actor, neither the actor or my brother would really be dead; there would have been no reason to totally switch off my emotions.

So, mistaking real life for a movie at that moment – maybe because everything suddenly felt so unreal – I put on Goo, as if for all the world I was putting on the album because my brother was on his way over for a meal. I did what it seemed that someone in a movie would do in this situation: put on the album, let it be the soundtrack of that night, let it honor him, while I cooked.

Of course, inevitably, I have never been able to listen to that album again. But it’s not because the tracks off that album evoke such sadness in me. It’s embarrassment, mortification and anger at myself for what seems now like a display of insincerity, that have become attached to the songs from Goo after that night.

I picture that moment at the sink and actually blush, from a deep sense of shame, at what a stupid thing it was to have done. Looking back now it seems disingenuous, as if I was playing out the role of a grieving person, learned from TV soap operas. Here in the present, I’ve felt mortified to be the person that did that. It seems as if I thought some kind of celebratory move was required, when it was way to soon for that. And I’m annoyed that I spoiled that album for myself, because it was an album that John loved.

Of course when I look back now, my action in putting on one of his favourite albums to play while I made soup highlights how the news of his death had only broken through the surface of some very outer barrier of my mind at that stage, it had not yet really penetrated my understanding, and shock was already playing its part in making me feel like a robot going through the motions: make a nourishing meal. Ring your sister.

Rationally, I know that it is not worth feeling humiliated, mortified or embarrassed about. I realise that one doesn’t know what the done thing is, when someone dies suddenly. But these irrational emotions are surprisingly effective at blocking out others. When I’m filled with the heat of embarrassment, I’m not also able to feel sad at the same time. I cry at all sorts of things nowadays, and certainly at plenty of songs, but not at songs by Sonic Youth.






Note: this prompt encouraged the writer to post links or multimedia; but in keeping with the topic, I don’t want to.

Reach out and touch somebody

It’s nearly 200 years since Darwin first came up with his theory of evolution and yet, even now, evolutionary scientists can not fully explain how new species arise.

In the 1980s in Australia, there were reported sightings of a previously unknown animal. These reports increased throughout the decade, probably because the creature was easily identifiable due to a unique combination of traits, particularly the sound it made.

By the late 1980s, anywhere you went in Australia, whether hiking in the bush, mucking around at Bondi Beach, or trekking by camel across the remote sandy desert, sooner or later you would stop, and turn your head towards the breeze, on which you could faintly hear, wafting, the melodic strains of this distinctive creature, floating through the air.

Sometimes a new category of species is created through breeding processes, and although it was still 20 years before we would all go crazy, mating our labradors with the neighbor’s poodles to make a batch of warm, fluffy labradoodles, it seems that some sinister laboratory cross-breeding experiment went horribly wrong and resulted in a new species that was a cross between UK band Simple Minds and Aussie band INXS.

The newly-emerged creature was a specific category of male homosapien, about 6 feet tall, with dark hair, that was always curly – if not genetically, then through chemical means – usually worn in a long mullet. The creature’s normal garb was black leather trousers and a black leather jacket, and his natural habitat was on a stage in front of a drummer, a bass, lead and rhythm guitar, and – since it was, after all, the 1980s – the optional but highly likely additions of a synthesiser and a saxophone.

These creatures seemed to be capable of multiplying at an astronomical rate, and during this period, a plethora of Aussie bands flooded the airwaves with the Simple Minds-X-INXS sound – much as, 20 years later, dog-rescue centres would be flooded with an oversupply of labradoodles, cavoodles, schnoodles and schmoodles.

Anyone who has studied the history of this animal (the mullet-headed band leader, not the poodle-cross) knows that the most significant practitioners of this sound were two particular Aussie bands, Noiseworks and Boom Crash Opera. (Another trait these bands had in common, apparently, was to ensure that loud noise was synonymous with their very identity.)

Below follows a taste test, so that you can make your own decision about the similarities. First, the originals:

  1. INXS – Melting in the Sun (1984)


2. Alive and Kicking – Simple Minds (1985)


And next, their progeny:

Boom Crash Opera – Great Wall (1987)


Noiseworks – Touch (1988)


Anyone interested enough to check out a portion of each, will find evidence that definite cross-breeding occurred.

Inevitably, just like a labradoodle, Boom Crash Opera and Noiseworks never quite managed (in my humble opinion) to reach the same level of success that their forebears had. Back in those days, I loved INXS (did I tell you about the time I met Michael Hutchence?) and I guess I liked Simple Minds well enough. Whereas to me, the most interesting thing about Boom Crash Opera was that one afternoon in 1988, guitarist Richard Pleasance called hello to me and a friend from the window of an upstairs apartment in St Kilda. Despite the thrill my 19-year old self felt at that event, the relationship between myself and Pleasance never progressed any further, and nor did the relationship between myself and the music of Boom Crash Opera. As for Noiseworks, I was never interested in their sound. It was not that I had developed more sophisticated taste by then (I hadn’t) but just that in 1988 I preferred the gentler melodies of The Pet Shop Boys and Aussie/New Zealand band Crowded House.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that they only ever seemed like a weak imitation of a better band, and even the fact that a few days after starting this post I thought of at least 2 far better songs with the lyrics “reach out” in them, it was the Noiseworks song above that I thought of when I received an emailed response to some negative feedback I’d given about a food product I’d ordered.

Aha! You thought this was a post about 80’s bands, but it’s really about corporate catch-phrases. Gotcha!

So anyway, three days after I sent my feedback, I’d received three emails from this company. The first was an automated reply to say my feedback had been received and that they’d be in touch with me shortly. The next email, about 48 hours later, was to say that they’d received a high amount of contact this week and there would be a further delay in responding to my feedback. The third was an actual response, written by a human being, that opened with the line, “Hello. Thank you for reaching out to us.”

The scariest thing on reading this was, that this was the second time in one week, I’d been thanked for ‘reaching out’. The other instance was equally as ridiculous. At work we use Dropbox for all our electronic files, and I knew our Dropbox Business Account was due to be renewed, I wanted to confirm what the charge would be, so I checked our account online, where I could see our 15 Dropbox accounts – and the total cost that we paid last year. I thought there might be an increase in the cost for the next financial year, so I filled out the online form to ask what the cost would be this year. In response, I received an email from a staff member at Dropbox, that began, “Thank you for reaching out. I understand you would like to know how much your annual charge will be” – and then pointed me to the link I’d already checked, to our account, showing me what the current charges are.

From these two emails I gather that suddenly we are not able to simply “ask how much our bill will be” or “give some negative feedback”, and heaven forbid we should be perceived to be “making a complaint.” No, all of these interactions and more can now be summarised under the touchy-feely, feel-good umbrella of “reaching out.”

This is where we come to another, more insidious sort of cross-breeding, that of terms and concepts from psychology and psychotherapy, bred most unfortunately with terms and concepts from New Age theories, for the purpose of creating a brand new Marketing and Communications Strategy.

The result is watered-down terms that have lost their original meaning. To describe someone as “reaching out” traditionally implies that they are asking for help in really dire circumstances. If you Google “reach out” in Australia, the first page of links are all for a youth organisation called Reach Out. That makes sense to me, because community organisations encourage people to reach out for help or support in a time of need.

It’s now common in Australia, that after any story on TV, radio or in print media that touches on topics like depression or anxiety, suicide, mental illness, or any other issue that could cause distress, phone numbers for organisations like LifeLine are listed, along with a message that says “if anything on tonight’s program has caused concern please phone the numbers below.” That’s because we try to encourage people to reach out, and let someone else know that they need some help. It’s a phrase that relates to circumstances a million times removed from checking on an annual bill, or complaining that a meal was not edible.

So I really find it repulsive that corporate-type companies have begun to take over the term “reaching out” and use it, apparently, for any and all customer contact. On both occasions, my reasons for contacting the companies in question were mundane, and it is a manipulative use of language to describe those interactions as me “reaching out,” as if I reached out needing help in a time of distress, or perhaps just needing some friendly contact to stave off loneliness, and, lo and behold, these corporate-type companies came to my rescue.

I’m glad to report that I’ve unsubscribed to the first company. I can’t unsubscribe my workplace from Dropbox but I’ll avoid “reaching out” to them again if possible.

If I do feel the need to reach out to somebody, I’ll probably start with my family, my friends, or even write a post here, as writing a post feels far more personal than emailing a supplier to ask how much my bill will be.

Or maybe I’ll just put on some bad music from the 80’s and imagine I’m reaching out to touch somebody.


“Reach out, reach out, reach out and touch somebody.” – Noiseworks, from The Noiseworks Marketing and Communications Strategy, 1988.

The stars look very different today

I had a drafted post all set to publish, on the Daily Post photo challenge theme of Weight(less).

Then David Bowie died, and his lyrics have been flowing through all my social media feeds, filling up cyberspace, and pushing themselves into the forefront of my mind, because they are so poetic, and because some of his most memorable lyrics seem to lend themselves to the theme at hand.

It would be hypocritical of me to pretend I was a big Bowie fan – I like all I’ve heard of his many and varied musical outputs, but personally, I’ve never purchased a David Bowie album. We have most of his albums in the very large collection of music in this house, but they my partner’s.

So I am far less qualified that many who are now writing posts about David Bowie – the artist, or the influence of his songs on their lives – and I can’t pretend to write about him with any of the authority of a music journalist or even a devoted life-long fan. But the sense of some link between his lyrics and the idea of weightlessness kept bugging me so I thought I’d have a go at tying them together.

Fortunately for people like me – who were still largely ignorant about just how much of a creative genuis the man was – the touring David Bowie exhibition came to Melbourne in 2015. I went, and was quite astonished at the wide scope of his creative pursuits, as well as the breadth of his artistic and literary influences.

One of the things I was most fascinated to learn about was his interest in the Dadaist technique of “Cut Up” poetry. Dada was a movement of artists and writers that occurred in Europe around the time of the First World War – my knowledge of it was gleaned from my studies as a visual artist. I was aware of the Cut Up technique they developed, and that it was more famously used by Beat writer William Burroughs in the 1960s.

These are the instructions for making a Dadaist poem, as written by the original Dadaists:

Take a newspaper.
Take some scissors.
Choose from this paper an article the length you want to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Next carefully cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them all in a bag.
Shake gently.
Next take out each cutting one after the other.
Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.
The poem will resemble you.
And there you are—an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.

(source: The Modernism Lab)

At the David Bowie exhibition, I learned that as a songwriter, Bowie was so interested in this technique, he had a computer program devised that would take a text and cut it up and put it back together for him. We may have seen this clip of Bowie talking about the cut up method – I can’t remember if that was included in the exhibition – but I do know that we saw a simulation of the computer program, “cutting” and reconfiguring his lyrics into new, nonsensical sentences. This stuck with me as an example of his willingness to look at history, and absorb the influence of avant-garde artists, and experiment with techniques that had, to that point at least, very little commercial or mainstream appeal.

At this particular time, of course, it’s inevitable that we all think of the songwriter’s lyrics, and it’s hard to resist imposing new meanings and symbolism onto them. I am not sure which albums Bowie wrote using the Cut Up technique but I doubt it was the ones whose lyrics have been most frequently quoted in my social media feeds in the past few days, as those are songs with a very clear narrative to them. The reason people are quoting those particular lyrics now is because they are excerpts from the story of a person, a loner, who has physically gone beyond the world and is looking back at it. Either that or he is not of this world, but would like to join it. There’s the Starman, waiting in the sky;  there’s Major Tom, floating in a tin can, high above the Moon. They are both floating, untethered; weightless.

Free they may be, but they are not entirely happy. Each of these figures is very emphatically alone, a tiny biped, isolated in the huge emptiness of the universe, looking back down at the planet with, it seems, a sense of longing to join it again.

Even with reference to only these two songs, it’s easy to conclude that Bowie used the metaphor of an astronaut out in space to explore the very human condition of feeling alone, lonely, abandoned, and simultaneously like a curiosity that everyone ogles at but no-one else understands.

I remember as a child, the first time I registered the lyrics to A Space Oddity and I remember almost feeling his sense of overwhelming isolation myself, when the forward drive in the music suddenly changes pace and slows right down, and over the slowed-down instrumentation, you hear the slightly nasal wail of the astronaut, resigning himself to floating around alone forever in the universe until he dies.  Tell my wife I love her very much, she knows.

As a child, I felt the weight of that as if it was a Shakespearian tragedy. I couldn’t quite believe that the song ended and left him still out there. I found the fading-away ending to the song to be as heart-breaking as Bowie could have hoped anyone would.

It occurs to me now that Bowie skilfully captured a feeling of space, and air, and weightlessness in those songs, and he managed to convey that, although weightlessness is a synonym for words that are poetic and beautiful – like lightness, floating, ethereality, airiness – those concepts are not inherently positive.

For example, as I’m sure Bowie was aware, if your sense of floating above the earth is because you are high, then that feeling of weightlessness might also bring a sense of detachment, which in turn might further enhance your feeling of being alienated from the rest of the world. Another condition that can cause that state of detachment is shock. I recall, when I was told that my brother died, feeling removed, and almost looking down on myself. If I felt weightless, it was not because I felt free, but because in my shock I believed that I’d heard the worst thing imaginable, so nothing else could have any effect on me.

There’s a final way that Bowie’s songs are weightless, but in this I could say the same of any legendary songwriter.

That is, that even after the songwriter has died, they live on, in the heads of those who loved their music and will continue to hum the tune and sing the words they wrote, for days, weeks, months, years and even decades afterwards. Lyrics to songs are more memorable than the text of a novel or play, more popular than a poem, because they are set to music. It’s in song that words reach, and speak to, the greatest number of people. In that sense, those who have written songs that will be sung, and lyrics that will be quoted for a long, long time after their creator has exited this life, have achieved a kind of weightlessness.

Here am I floating in my tin can

Far above the Moon

Planet Earth is blue 

and there’s nothing I can do


2013-04-15 in Lyon




A Hazy Shade of Winter (Sunday morning in Melbourne)

Time, time, time, see what’s become of me

yesterday morning it seemed I had such possibility

– where did the week go, please?


I look around, it makes me frown,

cos the kitchen is

still a mess from dinner


Hear the music of Grinderman

Blast from my stereo, I chop oregano

and marinate lamb

Carry a wine in my hand…


I look around, it makes me frown,

the sky is grey, it feels like it’s still winter

Hang on to your hopes my friend

It’s Melbourne 10am, might be warm by 2pm,

so simply pretend

the weekend won’t come to an end


I look around,

dishes piled high

they touch the sky

the dishwasher makes me cry***


Aaaah, the week flew by and little was achieved

Might as well be doing tapestry

Writing terrible poetry

Or just blogging to fill in time.

Funny how my memory slips,

looking over my manuscripts,

emails and silly rhymes.

Drinking my vodka and lime.


I look around, the internet’s down

and we need

a new cartridge for the printer

Look around, I’ve just found

cat vomit on the ground

Look around, it’s not profound

but this post’s the best I could expound.**


(location shown may not be Melbourne)

(Due to laziness, actual city depicted may not be Melbourne)




*Apologies to Simon and Garfunkle.


**I have cheated on a few levels with this post, as I first wrote it (or pretty much it – I’ve changed a few words) in 2011. That was back when no-one read this blog (except a handful of people who knew me). As I am short on ideas and can’t get inspired today, I’ve reblogged it – with a few alterations. Complaints may be sent to the PO box address at the top of the page.


***At the time that I wrote the original post, our dishwasher didn’t work. I wrote posts about that too, believe it or not.


X will mark the place

Lovers of poetry will gasp, (even, probably, faint delicately onto the floor) – but I will admit right here that while I am a fan of theatre, books, music, visual art, and just about any form of the arts, I generally do not seek out, or expect to get a lot out of, contemporary poetry. Well, traditional style contemporary poetry anyway, which of course is an idiotic thing to say. By traditional I mean, contemporary poetry presented as a written text – for example in a literary magazine or highbrow newspaper – as opposed to a spoken word performance, which to me feels like a whole other artform, which often sends chills up my spine and thus is not the one I’m not talking about here.

Generally, and no doubt unfairly, when I come across contemporary poetry by accident – believe it or not, folk, this does happen – I approach it with bias, expecting it to be obscure, or indulgent, or both. When I see a poem printed in a newspaper or literary magazine, I often simple turn the page to read the next story.

I know this is unfair of me. When I studied poetry in Year 12 English Literature, and discovered Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell, (at that time, their poetry was considered contemporary enough for high school Literature classes) I’d never encountered anything like their non-rhyming, anti-climactical texts. I was so inspired that naturally I even took to writing my own poems, as all 17 year old girls who fancy themselves as artistic types do.

Unfortunately, however, these poems caused me to like poetry so much that I took poetry as an elective in first year university and, sad to say, I was less inspired. Bored to death would be a more accurate description of my state of mind on being introduced to the poetry of Alexander Pope – and what he wrote, I cannot now tell you. I seem to recall some interminable lecture that felt like it went on for days rather than hours. It’s possible that I may have skipped a few of those lectures and instead hung out on the South Lawn.

In hindsight, I blame stodgy old Melbourne University for my suspicious approach to poetry.

Nowadays, it’s  increasingly hard for the Arts to compete for attention in a world where people are plugged in and switched on, listening to podcasts, watching Youtube clips, Instagramming and Snapchatting everything, and that’s just on their mobile phone on the way to work. So it’s particularly hard to understand how Poetry – an unobtrusive, pared-back artform that relies on a willingness to read words written on a page and allow the reader’s imagination to provide any or all of the accompanying loud noises, pretty colors or handsome character in the main role – can still expect to fight for a portion of that audience.

(If Poetry had any thoughts at all on the matter, I guess it would first turn up its hearing aid, and then agree that it has passed its prime but is quite enjoying its twilight years.)

Yet while I mostly avoid reading poetry, at the same time, I’ll readily listen to song lyrics.

I’m willing to listen to a song even if the lyrics are obscure and hard to fathom. If I judge that the music is worthy of listening to, it seems I can engage with lyrics the way I do with visual art, that is, by accepting that it’s up to me, the viewer/listener, to make my own meaning from the work when the meaning does not seem clear, and that there is no right or wrong answer.  In some cases, where lyrics seem nonsensical, I’m even willing to imagine that the songwriter was just having fun with words, and perhaps had no other intention beyond that.

Whack fol the diddle all the di do day.
So we say, Hip Hooray!
Come and listen while we pray.
Whack fol the diddle all the di do day.

The Clancy Brothers*

Music alone has power, but there is a kind of chemical reaction that results when the perfect combination of some simple words, with music that expresses the mood perfectly, and a human voice suited to imparting those exact words in that way, are put together. When that happens, even contemporary rock music has the potential to achieve the pinnacle that art is capable of.

What is that pinnacle that art is capable of, you may well ask at this point. Well, in my opinion, it’s capable of giving us a momentary glimpse of something deep within ourselves that feels intensely personal but simultaneously connects us to the universe (through shared experience with the human condition). You know when it’s achieved because it will make the hairs on your arms stand up and a shiver run down your spine.

I’ve written before about the shiver that runs down my spine when I hear, or read, Macbeth’s final soliloquy. That particular shiver is one of awe, in recognition of the insignificant smallness of human life, in relation to the unimaginable eternity of the universe. So I guess that shiver is the standard that I hold all art against.

And sometimes, listening to a song, a line jumps out at me that causes a similarly visceral response. Sometimes it’s sadness, or poignancy – a particular line that captures something I have experienced, for example the grief I felt at the death of my younger brother. These are personal responses, so I’m aware that the same line may mean nothing to another listener, or may mean something completely different to the person who wrote it, but in that moment of emotional recognition, it is of no importance whether my interpretation of the line is what the songwriter meant by it.

The example I have in mind today, and what all of this has been leading up to, is a song by Radiohead, from the album Hail To The Thief – yes, the album I was addicted to about 2 months ago. You’ll be pleased to know that in-between, I did stop listening to it for a while. Clearly, I started up again. It’s a habit that’s hard to shake.

The song is Where I End And You Begin. Lyrics are as follows:

There’s a gap in between
There’s a gap where we meet
Where I end and you begin
And I’m sorry for us
The dinosaurs roam the earth
The sky turns green
Where I end and you begin

I am up in the clouds
I am up in the clouds
And I can’t and I can’t come down
I can watch and cant take part
Where I end and where you start
Where you, you left me alone
You left me alone

X’ll mark the place
Like the parting of the waves
Like a house falling in the sea
In the sea

I will eat you alive [x4]
There’ll be no more lies [x4]
I will eat you alive [x4]
There’ll be no more lies [x4]
I will eat you alive [x4]
There are no more lies [x4]
I will eat you alive [x3]


Now, I really don’t know what Thom Yorke had in mind when he wrote this, and any interpretation I can give it doesn’t quite add up. For example, it’s easy to interpret the lyric Where you, you left me alone, as being spoken by someone missing a loved person who has died; but the earlier lyric I am up in the clouds doesn’t make sense in that context – that sounds like the person who has died speaking. And what can I make of the last lines, I will eat you alive, there are no more lies? – I have no idea.

So whatever is meant by the song as a whole, I don’t know, but what I get from it is a theme: separation, ending, being left alone, and, possibly, that the cause of this separation and loneliness could be death.

The thing is, I hadn’t stopped to analyse any of that the first time I listened to the lyrics. I was just listening along -and probably chopping onions – when I heard Thom’s ethereal voice sing, about an octave higher than the previous verses, X’ll mark the place, and as soon as I heard him sing that line, I felt a jab at my heart.

I don’t care what interpretation anyone else gives the song, or that line. For me the change in the tune, the lifted octave, the lyric itself, all helped to convey that X marks a place where someone has departed from someone else’s life. In the moment I heard it, that line conveyed a new image to me: an imaginary X, that will mark forever the place where my brother died, and an X that will mark the place where I was when I heard that he had died.

The weakness in that logic is that those imagined X’s mark two physical places, but there must be one final X. That is, after all, the point of an X that marks a place. You don’t have treasure maps with two Xs on them. You didn’t do algebraic equations to find out what two different Xs equalled. (At least, not in high school maths.)

I guess for me that final  X must mark a point that exists on a metaphorical timeline, the point when my brother departed from life, while I continued on living.


*Have I ever mentioned that I grew up listening to my dad’s Clancy Brothers albums? I’m sure there was a song that went “O, ro di diddly dum, o ro di diddly dum, de diddly diddly diddly dum, de diddly diddly diddly dum.”

(And yes, I could sing that if you don’t believe me.)

Hysterical and Useless

I’m going to have to update my CV, specifically where it lists my hobbies.

I’ve realised lately that a hobby of mine seems to be discovering an old song, or album, years, or sometimes decades after it was released, or sometimes years after I actually first bought the album, and then becoming rather obsessed with it. Obsession lasts to the point where it’s a fine line between pleasure and pain: I catch the song/album  playing in my head while I’m at work, for example, and feel sick to death of it, and yet as soon as I get the opportunity, I’m listening to the album one more time.

At the moment, that album is Hail To The Thief, by Radiohead.

Now of course, it’s cool to discover albums by revered musicians, decades after they were released. It’s kind of the opposite of cool, though, to get into an album about 3, 4, 5 through to 10 years after it was released. After all, cool, as we know, means, fashionable, hip – that you lead the pack in your thoughts, tastes, ideas and influences.

Getting into an album about 5 years after its released suggests the opposite. The only conclusion that can be drawn is that you waited until you were convinced by everyone around you that the album was good before you dared to form an opinion yourself, and even then you waited another 4.5 years before taking that final, decisive step and buying/downloading/illegally burning it.

When it comes to Radiohead I admit quite freely that I missed the boat. I bought a second-hand copy of OK Computer in about 2000, approx 3 years after it was released and was a commerical and critical success worldwide. It was not their first album, either, but according to Wikipedia,

OK Computer is often acclaimed as one of the landmark records of the 1990s[1] and one of the best albums of all time.[2][3

I guess that seemed a good enough recommendation to take a punt on.

Seriously, the only excuse I can think of for why they escaped my attention until 3 years after the release of an album that was a landmark of the 1990s, is that maybe the album was too commerically successful to get airplay on the independent radio station I listened to. But I could be totally making that up. In the mid-to-late 1990s my most listened-to genres of music were British Trip-hop and techno (Massive Attack, Tricky, Portishead, The Prodigy etc) or Australian rock and post-rock (Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, The Dirty Three, The Cruel Sea, The Surrealists, etc), and somehow the whole Radiohead explosion passed me by.  It was about 2000 when I decided I needed to find out more about them and deliberately set out to find a second-hand copy of OK Computer. It was possibly one of the first things I ever bought on eBay. I liked it, but not enough, apparently, to rush out and purchase any more Radiohead albums straight away.

Some time later –  let’s say about 5 years after its release – I picked up a copy of Kid A, thus keeping with the pattern of being very un-coolly behind the 8 ball when it came to Radiohead albums. Looking at my Radiohead collection, I find that I now have Pablo Honey, Hail To The Thief, and In Rainbows as well, although I have no idea when I got them. Most were picked up at second hand stores, (except In Rainbows which exists only on iTunes), so it seems I’ve never actually felt compelled to run out specifically to purchase a Radiohead album.

From this I think we can safely summarise the relationship between myself and and Radiohead thus: we have a very casual relationship, where I pick up their albums only if/when I happen to spot them for $5 at the local charity store, and they take no notice of me at all. So far this relationship has been working fine for all of us.

So Hail To The Thief has been in my CD collection for I-don’t-know how long – maybe 6 months, maybe 6 years. Maybe more. (it was released in 2003, so maybe 12 years??). What we can deduce, however, is that I have barely, if ever, listened to it. Until now.

What has changed now? I hear you ask. Good question, dear reader. Well, in a related incident, about 4 years ago one of my brothers gave me a book about Radiohead, called Radiohead – Hysterical and Useless, by Martin Clarke.

Radiohead bookAs is obviously my usual pattern, I put the book in our book shelves, where it sat with approximately 2000* other books  I am slowly working my way through at the average rate of about 1 book per month. (At that rate I estimate that in 150 more years I will have read them all.)

Recently I had a sudden hankering to read that book, and located it amongst the piles (of books). I read about the formation of the band, and the release of their early albums, which the author takes the time to describe track by track.

While reading descriptions of each track on Pablo Honey, I felt a strong inclination to listen to the songs being examined. I searched unsuccessfully for the album around the house – I couldn’t find the CD (we have nearly as many CDs as we have books). I had neglected to copy it into iTunes, so that attempt to synch my music listening with my reading was a failure, but while searching I discovered an album I’d completely forgotten about – Hail To The Thief! What do you know?  I popped it on to accompany my reading. (After all, it seemed likely that I’d get up to the release of Hail To The Thief sooner or later.) The next thing I knew, I was addicted.

Pic: Wikipedia

Hail To The Thief – album cover. Pic: Wikipedia

So now my problem is trying to stop listening to that album. I’ve finished the book (I’ve read a whole other book since then) but I can’t stop listening to the album. I catch myself out at home and work, with a track from the album playing in my head and feel tired of hearing it, but as soon as I have my iphone nearby I go straight to it for another listen.

And all I’ve told you about within this rapidly escalating word count is that I’m listening to this album, and how that came about. I haven’t even delved into what it is about the music, and the lyrics, on these albums that I find becomes quite compelling after a few listens. It’s the combination of melancholy, sometimes quite heart-breaking melodies, with scratchy, industrial sounding noise, beats, and lyrics that seem to be a mixture of nonsense and dark hints at bleak, futuristic worlds – suggestive of an apocalypse, or nuclear war, or a world taken over by computers.

What’s not to like?

As I round this off, I’ve noted a weird connection. This obsession has happened before with songs that I’ve had to listen to over and over again, and specific songs that I recall this happening on are This Mess We’re In, by PJ Harvey, and….How To Disappear Completely, by Radiohead.

In case you missed the connection, Thom Yorke (lead singer, and song writer for Radiohead) duets on This Mess We’re In with PJ Harvey.

In short – please help! I seem to have a propensity to become addicted to Thom Yorke’s songs.


 * regarding the number of books in our house, I asked my partner, who buys a lot of our books, (usually from charity stores) and seems to always know where they all are, and he thought about it for a while and said “probably about 4000.” But I don’t think he’s good at estimating numbers, that can’t be right. We live in a small house!

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