Monday, January 14, 2019

I Lied

I've always been interested in songs that tell us what we didn't know we knew. They usually come to us in early adolescence, age 12, 13, 14, when the world's getting complicated, adults looming and oppressive, social politics maddening, and the body going its own crazy way. How to keep up? Songs often score those days poignantly, and because they get into us as we were developing, a physical and psychological sweet spot of sorts despite the chaos, they never really go away.

Today the dB's great "I Lie" came on shuffle, and it delivered me back to a different time in life. Things are complex for much different reasons in your early 20s, and the songs that soundtrack those years are no less bittersweet than the ones that move and confound you in junior high. When the dB's The Sound of Music came out in 1987, I was solidly in my college DJ groove, excited because I liked the early dB's records, especially Like This, and we were all happy that Peter Holsapple (above) and company had finally graduated to the big-time of I.R.S. Records. The album let me down a bit, mostly because of the production, against which it sounded like the band was fighting, eager to re-discover the loose-limbed sound of their early, more quirky records. "I Lie" was a single, if I'm remembering right, but I didn't have high hopes for its chart life given how utterly morose and downcast the song was, a dirge relative to the band's more idiosyncratic poppy stuff. I didn't like the synth beds or the processed drum sound, which even then I grimly recognized as necessary part of the sonic landscape if one was shooting for a million-seller. The dBs' winsome drummer Will Rigby, who always seemed to play onstage with a grin, didn't wear it well to my ears, but I knew it likely wasn't his call. 

Holsapple in 1987
Yet something in the mournful song hit me very deeply, and I played it often while driving around or on my Walkman on campus between classes, and today I realized that Peter Holsapple, in his hangdog way, was singing something that I couldn't admit to myself. I lied: to my girlfriend, to myself, sometimes to my teachers. Not earth-shattering stuff, yet when I hear the song now I realize that the melancholy and chill in my chest I felt when I listened to it at the time was the residue of a hopelessness, a discovery that I'd never be able to admit some things to myself, was just too scared and weak to, and that I'd have to wait until a song took me there, a coward's route that feels now very much like what being 21 felt like. I see my students in my classes and talk to them, and I know that many of them are struggling with the same painfully pleasurable thing, streaming, YouTube replaying, or dropping the needle: this song is saying what I won't or can't say, and isn't it a great song?

In "I Lie" what I especially love, as is the case with countless other songs, is the turn in the bridge.  Holspapple sings in the verses about all of the deception he directs at himself and others because she left him, but if he had a new girl he wouldn't lie. I sure understood that. Yet the bridge and its dark-night-of-the-soul minor key tells the truth as he wonders, Why don't I want you? Who's this "you?" The first girl or, more distressingly, the second one, the one who's supposed to fix everything? How awfully perfect: I don't want the person who I'm supposed to want. Substitute for "the person" any goal, really: sound like one's twenties? (Or later?) The sad and beautiful "I Lie" fades out with the singer asking the same, despondent question of another: why don't you want me? Man, life's a mess. Add recreational drug and alcohol abuse, the demands of work, scanning the room for identities that will fit right, and the ever widening horizon of life's small and large injustices and it's a wonder we survive at all.

I did. In song, Peter Holsapple was just braver than I was.

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