Monday, January 25, 2010

an average morning

I woke up choking ten minutes before my alarm was supposed to go off. Immediately, the dream subsided and I was left with a vague feeling of unease. Something in the dream about a bus, and a small, narrow bench that I was trying to get comfortable on while foreign voices murmured incomprehensibly at the periphery. Asian characters on signs passing by the dirt stained window. Skies full of gray-brown billowing soot and ash. I am coughing out pollution in a dream when I awaken to coughing out the remains of a week long illness that demanded antibiotics, steroids, and two days of my paid sick leave. Dammit.

The shower this morning has a very questionable force behind it and I sigh as I clamber in under the weak stream of warm water, trying to warm and wake myself and shake off both the cold of the tile floor and the cold that is still in residence in my head and chest. I hang my head to get under the showerhead that was obviously hung for people shorter than I, close my head and begin the semi-automatic ritual of scrubbing down and waking up.

And then, just like every cursed morning for the past 20 days, it comes again. The damned words. Calling out to me from some unused, primordial part of my brain as it is coming back to the waking world. They just emerge, unwanted, unwarranted, fully-formed with the accompanying, maddening music. The siren’s call of their insanity forcing from me a frustrated growl as I hit my forehead against the unforgiving, passively observant tile of the shower.

“You’re looking good just like a snake in the grass. One of these days you’re gonna break your glass. Don’t bring me down.”

I stifle a scream to avoid waking my peacefully slumbering little family, and bite down on my bottom lip until I am pretty sure I draw blood. The same song for three weeks now, every morning, in the shower. In my head. Insistent. Nonsensical. Pulsating. Throbbing. Daring every fiber of my sanity to discern any meaning or significance in its content. Demons playing on horrible flutes for a blind god at the center of a fragile soul.

It isn’t that I hate Electric Light Orchestra. As far as British rock bands go, they’re no Beatles or Stones, but they aren’t The Bees Gees or anything truly horrifying. They’re middle of the road seventies butt-rock. And like many bands of the middle seventies, they had that lofty idea of combining rock with some other style or genre, in their case they wanted classical overtones, which I would suspect throws them in the same bin as other proggy music nerds like Yes or King Crimson. However, ELO succumbed to the disease of the times and became more disco oriented as time progressed.

Yet for none of this relatively humble biography does ELO really deserve the hate that I reserve for the song “Don’t Bring Me Down”. It isn’t that it’s a terrible song. In fact, it’s a simple, uptempo, slightly catchy seventies pop rock song. It enjoys a respectable rotation at every classic rock station I’ve ever listened to in a sustained manner. Most people of a certain age (boomers) recognize the song and enjoy it. It is of a piece with all its contemporaries. Yet, it is also the bane of my existence on these lonely, cold mornings when the equipment in my head is slowly crackling back to life after a night full of God knows what: non-linear horribleness that I can rarely piece together the next morning.

“You’re looking good just like a snake in the grass.”

There exists a break in this song where we just have this line acting as a deep sinister pothole in the stream of thought and rhythm that typically accompanies listening to any given song. And when I hear this song, I know it is coming. The tune is catchy, and of a tempo to initiate toe-tapping, perhaps even a touch of head-nodding. It is an insistent, but not punishing, beat. A pleasant song to catch on a long drive to somewhere else. But here, deep into the meat of the song, there is this line.

“You’re looking good just like a snake in the grass.”

The first time you hear this song it doesn’t register. The first thirty or forty times you hear it, but don’t pause. After this stage you know the song as a familiar friend and can sing along. So you sing along. At a brisk pace down I-30 to spend a lazy weekend in another state with old friends, you begin surfing to unfamiliar radio stations and hit upon that old soft slipper: the classic rock station. You hear the strains of “Don’t Bring Me Down” begin to segue out of a Boston song you lament missing. You know this song. You turn it up a little. The feet turn into a mile as you absent-mindedly sing along.

“You’re looking good just like a snake in the grass.”

You pause in your singing. Strange line. You shrug, and keep singing. Song’s over now. Oh, Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” is next. You forget about the snake in the grass. You switch to the noises you make during “Iron Man”. Duhhnn, duhn, duhn , nuh nuh. Duh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh, nuh nuh nuh. You forget. Your conscious mind is saved. But somewhere, back where your mind keeps a few questionable sexual encounters and the steps of the Krebs Cycle, a seed grows…

“You’re looking good just like a snake in the grass.”

In Zen Buddhism, there exists the concept of the koan: a question that has no answer. The koan exists to strip the mind of the initiate into the mysteries of Zen of rational thought. It is a rock upon which reason is broken. It is there, in their mind, every day for meditation. “What was your face before you were born?” “Did Adam and Eve have navels?”

I gave up the illusion that I had the discipline to be Buddhist long ago. But here, in the midst of what’s shaping up to be a nice little life, I have been given my koan.

After that first time where you pause on the lyric, you will continue to pause. The line doesn’t make any sense. It does. Not. Make. Sense. And at first that’s fine, that’s just fine. Lots of songs have lyrics that don’t make sense. Michael Stipe made a career out of being obtuse. Beck never makes sense. The Talking Heads were rarely coherent in any literal way. It should be OK.

But it isn’t. Not here. Not in this silly little song.

“You’re looking good just like a snake in the grass.”

What does that mean? The author clearly addresses someone he finds attractive in some way. Sexually? Platonically? Is he hungry and addressing food? Is he cold and addressing a fire? Something looks good to him. OK, fine. We can deal with that. Attraction to things ‘other’ to us makes us all human.

Looking good ‘like’. ‘Like’ and ‘as’ indicate the utilization of a simile. We remember similes from middle school English. We are being given a comparison between two unlike things. If a man stands astride the world like a Colossus, he is not actually a huge bronze statue. That’s a simile.

“You’re looking good just like a snake in the grass.”

A snake in the grass. You. Are looking good. Snake in the grass. Simile involves the comparison of two unlike objects. OK. It would be silly to say something like: The bath towel looks like a big hand towel. Well, no shit. That’s not a simile. A simile enriches the understanding of the reader. If I tell you that your student is roughly as smart as a garden gnome, I am enriching your understanding of your child’s vast stupidity by comparing disparate objects; in this case an inanimate yard decoration and your ballistically stupid offspring.

There’s no enrichment here. You can’t just look good like a snake in the grass. Even if we are stretching to use a bible reference, and saying that the ‘You’ in question in the line is as tempting as Eve’s serpential tempter, why make it so vague? This isn’t Faulkner, I shouldn’t have to wrack my brain this hard to rationalize this explanation. And even still the answer is unsatisfying. It isn’t as if the rest of the song builds on this theme. In fact, this is it. Just this one line.

“You’re looking good just like a snake in the grass.”

The effect on the brain is the same as if one were struck by a mallet. Fixed stare, jaw slightly agape. An occasional blink. There is no answer. There is no sense. Any attempt to understand meets with failure. Ultimately the only answer is the one that the hearer produces to cauterize the wound, to protect their own sanity. For the sake of the brain, an understanding is coughed up involuntarily, an ignorance is cultivated.

But it is all a part of the courtesy curtain separating the healthy birthing mother from the terminally cancerous and wholly alone old crone. Whatever sense the human mind makes of this song lyric is simply a survival mechanism, a poster of a calm, rational world barely overlaying the hole in the world from which teems the churning abyss of chaos. We can’t afford to let ourselves peek under the curtain to truly wonder at the meaninglessness of the lyric, and the horror that it points to. To do so confirms Nietzsche’s great fear for a people unable to grapple with greatness, that the abyss will gaze back into those who look. To look is to

be alone in a barely adequate shower on an early Monday morning in winter, slowly bouncing one’s head off the unresponsive tile, staring down into water circling a drain, in a world that really does not make any sense.

“You’re looking good just like a snake in the grass.”

1 comment:

  1. I always kind of figured the key was the "good". More like "you appear smug and self-satisfied in an environment which is advantageous to you." It's just "you're lookin' pleased just like a hog in slop/one of these days your head's gonna pop" probably didn't parse right with the semioticians.