Saturday, April 6, 2019

Pursuing something

Four Tops
"Elusive Butterfly" was a hit for Bob Lind in 1966, reaching the number 5 spot on the U.S. and U.K. charts. The lyrics are purple in splotches and occasionally sentimental, but powerfully evocative, too:
You might wake up some morning
To the sound of something moving past your window in the wind
And if you're quick enough to rise
You'll catch a fleeting glimpse of someone's fading shadow
Out on the new horizon
You may see the floating motion of a distant pair of wings
And if the sleep has left your ears
You might hear footsteps running through an open meadow 
Don't be concerned, it will not harm you
It's only me pursuing something I'm not sure of
Across my dreams with nets of wonder
I chase the bright elusive butterfly of love
The second verse has its share of clumsy lines ("You might have heard my footsteps / Echo softly in the distance through the canyons of your mind") and the image of the singer "running through the long-abandoned ruins of the dreams you left behind," is wincingly close to Poetry 101, but the overall effect is unnerving and strange enough to work, especially as the heartache is softened by the airy, lilting balm of Lind's melody. The verse ends with the singer gliding past his elusive love "followed close by heavy breathing." Indeed.


Four years later, the Four Tops offered a transcendent cover of "Elusive Butterfly" on Still Waters Run Deep. Their version trades Lind's folksy lightness for something unsurprisingly fatter and funkier, their assured arrangement beginning with an atmospheric high organ line made spookily earthy by bongos and percussion. Levi Stubb's vocal is, as always, commanding and aggressive yet warm and nuanced, breaking in places but confident throughout. A string arrangement send the song airborne in a different way than Lind's acoustic buoyancy does, more groove than light. This is very much a group vocal arrangement, of course, Stubbs and Abdul Fakir, Lawrence Payton, and Renaldo Benson trading lines and exhortations, but there's a reason Levis was the front man: everything he sang sounded urgent and desperate, even songs with a lighter touch; such was his command of his baritone and its emotional range.

When I was in graduate school, the late writer John Haines liked to tell me that he believed popular music stole the love poem from the poets. The argument rang true to me. From Sinatra and Elvis to Beatlemania and Motown to Bubblegum and Boy Bands to Britney and Ariana, popular music delivers headiness and urgency, a Top 100 wattage that conventional love poems sometime blink feebly against, lacking spectacle. "Elusive Butterfly" is an eternal ode to lost love that via these two versions achieves poetry of a particular sort: melody and melancholy, singing voice and aching heart lifting cliché and Hallmark gentility into something greater, and deeper.


"Elusive Butterfly," from Still Waters Run Deep (1970)

Friday, April 5, 2019

Altered

Kurt Cobain died 25 years ago today. I remember sitting in a lousy Pizza Hut in Athens, Ohio sometime in 1992. Nevermind was out, and huge and getting bigger. Amy and I were eating when "Smells Like Teen Spirit" came on. At the end of the song, to which we were paying only minimal attention, a denial, a denial, a denial, a denial roared through the place, cutting through everyone's meal, personal space, and sense of decorum, or peace, and it felt like nothing else than a demand to reevaluate things. That simple, and that profound. As what happens when encountering great art, the environment had been altered, and I'd been unprepared.

A year or so earlier, as I wrote in Field Recordings from the Inside, my neighbor on First Street and some friends of hers were out on her front porch.
I walk past and hear a song coming from their house that I’ve never heard before, and can’t place. In the few moments it takes to reach my front steps the music seems to have moved from sweet to ferocious to anthemic to desolate and back again. The singer’s great. The riffs are loud, but clean. “Who is that?” I yell from the street.

She smiles beatifically at me. “It’s Nirvana!”

When Nevermind was released in the fall of 1991 I was only vaguely aware of Kurt Cobain’s band. I’d looked the other way when their early Sub Pop records were issued, as I hadn’t been ready yet for their tuneful howl. What I heard my neighbor say was “nirvana” with a lower-case “n.” In the way we instantaneously make sense of a complex moment and its scope, it felt like what she had described for me was a feeling, a place, made of roar and stillness, to where she’d been transported, a spiritual instant. Not much later, when Nirvana took off commercially, I made the critical appellative correction, but the influential exchange on the street had imprinted itself in me. That was less music I heard walking by her porch on an ordinary sunny day in autumn than a state of being.
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