February 12, 2003

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Liner Notes

by Lynn Rapoport

You think it's like this

"Telling stories ... made loopholes for evil and the Father of Lies to enter the world."

A.S. Byatt, A Whistling Woman

RELIGION TOOK A backseat, for some reason, to the folklore and mythology of the Nordic lands and ancient Greece in my family, and I don't remember ever being told it wasn't nice to lie. So who knows why I decided at 14 not to fabricate, exaggerate, or practice evasions with anyone anymore, least of all my parents, at that important age when other people are learning to keep things to themselves. Everything, mostly sex and drugs, was on the table for discussion and description, or so I thought until the day, three years later, when my mother begged, nicely, for a respite.

I felt bad for a while. The next stage was disbelief and a slight tinge of nausea when I reminisced about everything I'd idealistically mentioned. By that time I'd grasped that you had to be able to tell the good lies from the bad, or you would sink. And that no one tells good lies better than an accomplished storyteller – whether in song, fiction, drama, or a nice cubist painting.

I hate to blame my upbringing and will certainly irritate my parents (who read this column with proud, secular fervor) by bringing it up again, but ever since that botched revelatory stint, I've tended to confuse what things mean with the way they sound. Thus, in college I was ripe for the Cocteau Twins, who managed to create a grammar, largely out of Elizabeth Fraser's theatrical vocal patterns, of admissions, retractions, accusations, thoughts of nostalgia, intimations of physical longing, and other emotional outbursts. Without words for signposts, or at least not strings of words that resolved themselves into recognizable sentences, you had to assume you understood what she meant. I never doubted that she meant every wordlike sound. But how would I know?

It's always frightened me to consider that plays and stories were at one time deemed immoral because they represented what wasn't the case. (Half the things I say in this space might not stand in a court of law unless propped up by a boom box playing My Bloody Valentine's "When You Sleep," the Gits' "Whirlwind," and Richard and Mimi Fariña's "Pack up Your Sorrows.") Now, of course, people complain when novels are too obviously taken from life. But the same people, or maybe it's just me, expect so much from their music, as if the use of the first-person singular, as if opening your mouth at all, is an admission of ownership, of complicity with the emotional details on display. Examining my own tendency to invent, my own feelings' tendency to dissipate over time, I have to accept that while the song may remain the same, whatever catalyzed it may not have ever happened, exactly, or have long since lost its ability to throw the singer off-balance.

I've had this same thought recently while listening to Victory at Sea, Crooked Fingers, and (increasingly less so) Rainer Maria. I think about it too much. And I started again one night a few weeks ago after a Young People show at Bottom of the Hill. Playing their album (self-titled, on 5 Rue Christine) at one in the morning, I could have sworn it was all true. Singer Katie Eastburn's expressions of pain and love and calm and contempt – words or sighs or long, keening exhalations that stretch the lines of lyrics until all of the oxygen in the room is gone – were somehow more real than the sounds I'd been registering for weeks on the stereo, in clubs, on the streets and the evening news.

I had no way of knowing this, of course. It was just how it sounded.

Questions arise. How do you mean the same thing every time you sing a song? Does rhyming, in poetry and in song, make it especially challenging to stick to the facts? Why, exactly, is it easier to assume that the characters in a song live and breathe and regret whatever actions led them to be immortalized, when novel writers get away with calling it fiction and – aside from Philip Roth – are often believed? And on a most important related note, what is the thing inside John Darnielle's songs that makes it impossible for me to believe he's just telling stories, even when he's just telling stories?

It doesn't matter, none of it matters, nothing matters, my knees go weak when Katie Eastburn sings the opening words of "Dishwashing Song," which seems to be about anything other than household chores, unless it's the work of keeping things running. "My love," Eastburn sings, voice cracking or breaking, and the line, half overcome by guitars with heavy hearts, goes on forever.

E-mail Lynn Rapoport at lynn@sfbg.com.