Lyrics and Life
By Caitlin Ward
The screen door slams, Mary’s dress waves
You can hide ‘neath your covers and study your pain
Oh oh come take my hand
Well I got this guitar and I learned how to make it talk
I think anyone who knows me knows how I feel about Detroit, and if you read this column with any regularity, you probably know how I feel about it, too. It’s my favourite. More so than the places I have been, or the places that I could go, I’ve got it in my head that Detroit is probably the best. Surely it hasn’t been changed by the musical success of Motown, the way that Liverpool got touristy because of Mersey Beat and Manhattan was gentrified and Camden got posh. Detroit must be a thing unto itself.
Of course, I’ve never been to Detroit. And just about anyone I’ve spoken to who’s been to Detroit has told me things that dissuade me. Strangely, it’s not the water crisis, the crime or the inner city deserts; it’s the talk about bistros and performance artists, and how Detroit might get really cool in the next 20 years, or so. I’ve got this idea in my head about industrial American cities, and what they’re like, and generally it doesn’t include the avant-garde or pretentious restaurants. Obviously, the vast majority of Detroit is not in the throes of gentrification, but these pockets of conversation about Detroit being anything but a down-on-its-luck industrial town leaking soul music displease me. That’s not what I want it to be.
I am aware that this is my own personal brand of idiocy. It’s this romantic notion of believing in how I think something ought to look rather than acknowledging what it actually is. It’s not fair to the struggling city that Detroit is to have an idea that it is or should be something else. Who the hell am I to have an opinion on the matter, anyway?
But then, I don’t think this is entirely my fault. You see, my idea of what Detroit might be is cobbled together from song lyrics, art and conversations from people who are from there: Rodriguez, Jackie Wilson, The White Stripes, Iggy Pop, Eminem, Electric Six. All of these different artists have built a world that is their city in my head from what they do say and what they don’t say about their hometown. And I suppose whenever there’s a group of artists coming out of a particular place, we get a particular notion of what that place might be by the way they speak about it. The British Invasion, for example, was a lot of songs about love, but there was also a thread running through the musical movement that talked about the hard northern cities some of those bands came from. Coincidentally, they were sometimes singing songs that came from Detroit, as in the case of my favourites, The Animals.
I suppose at this point I could say something about working class solidarity across continents, but my background is in poetry, not politics. So instead, I’ll tell you I’ve been thinking about these ideas of illusion and perception and reality. They’re always on my mind a bit, but I’ve been thinking about them more since one of my colleagues gave me a book about Bruce Springsteen’s lyrics.
As generally happens when people give me books, I spilled coffee down the spine within a matter of hours. But my terminal clumsiness aside, the book (Magic in the Night by Rob Kirkpatrick, if you were interested) succinctly described, through the lens of Springsteen’s lyrics, this particular American mythology that I have always been drawn to but never quite articulated. I think it’s one of the other American Dreams: the one that looks at Manifest Destiny and notions of greatness and self-made people and then looks around at how those notions turned out, and thinks, “was this where we were going? Because man . . .”
But it’s not just depressed or depressing; there is something so very larger than life and so earnest and so very American about the desperation in some of Springsteen’s lyrics — something brokenly optimistic about a song like Thunder Road. Something that’s still got the vestiges of that traditional American Dream: this is terrible, but maybe this can be better, too.
I think that’s what draws me to this mythos in the first place; it’s geographically close but culturally quite foreign. I don’t really get being that earnest or optimistic, on some level. It’s not the sort of thing we do in Canadian music, or Canadian culture at all, really. We’re not necessarily more cynical, but we’re definitely more understated. Here, it might be a bit embarrassing to feel that strongly about something besides health care or hockey.
This is why I won’t actually go to a place like Detroit or New Jersey. I’m slightly terrified there is no Thunder Road, and however understatedly cynical I might be, I want to believe that songs are real.
Ward is a freelance writer and aspiring documentary filmmaker based in Saskatoon. You can find her short bursts of insight and frustration at http://www.twitter.com/newsetofstrings