I’m endlessly fascinated by the ways in which time and experience change the way we understand and express ourselves.* I find myself inspired lately by the words of Cephalus in the opening bits of Plato’s Republic (from Jowett’s rather…ehem…tame translation):
How well I remember the aged poet Sophocles, when in answer to the question, How does love suit with age, Sophocles, –are you still the man you were? Peace, he replied; most gladly have I escaped the thing of which you speak; I feel as if I had escaped from a mad and furious master. His words have often occurred to my mind since, and they seem as good to me now as at the time when he uttered them. For certainly old age has a great sense of calm and freedom; when the passions relax their hold, then, as Sophocles says, we are freed from the grasp not of one mad master only, but of many. The truth is, Socrates, that these regrets, and also the complaints about relations, are to be attributed to the same cause, which is not old age, but men’s characters and tempers; for he who is of a calm and happy nature will hardly feel the pressure of age, but to him who is of an opposite disposition youth and age are equally a burden. (Republic Book I, courtesy of the Internet Classics Archive)
Old Cephalus, happy fellow, can’t drink or eat like he used to, and his sex life is pretty much over…and he’s relieved. Age is not a “burden” to him, because he feels he has “escaped from a mad and furious master” — the hormones and the drives and the urges don’t own the old boy anymore. His observation isn’t that unusual — I know, for myself, that I’m pleased as punch not to be a teenager anymore. The comparative sanity of my current middle-aged state is pretty damn pleasant. Yet I do sometimes kind of miss…something. I’m not sure what it is anymore, because I don’t feel it anymore, that whatever-it-is that made me obsessed with musical theatre (for example) in ways I simply cannot be now.
I loved Les Miserables as a high school student (and on into college). I was annoying as hell about it. I could sing most of the score from memory. I thought (at the time) that I was pretty good, and technically, sometimes I wasn’t so bad. I thought I understood it. To be fair, like every other musical-obsessed teenage girl of the time, I was probably right to think I understood “On My Own”; the emotions in that song are a teenage girl’s emotions, lonely and hopeful and longing. I also thought, however, that I understood not only Eponine’s songs, but Fantine’s (“I Dreamed a Dream”). I was entirely wrong about this.
I know now (as I could not have known, then) that I didn’t understand Fantine at all. Susan Boyle (whose version of the song is fine, although I don’t think it matches up to some of the stellar performances of it that have appeared in the show itself) was a hell of a lot closer than I could ever have been to understanding it. I was simply too young, and hadn’t lived the sort of life that would give me access to the real emotions this song and character require. I could make the song pretty-ish in my limited way, but I couldn’t make it live. I couldn’t make it real.
I’ve begun to think (as I study other people’s covers of songs I sing for myself or for the assorted bands I hang with) that there are just songs that we should only sing when it’s time, and that time is not always when we’d like. Another example: I learned John Prine‘s “Angel from Montgomery” for an acoustic jam this week (trying to build my meager skills on the 6-string guitar). It’s a pretty damn powerful piece of songwriting. I’ve been trying for years to recapture how I felt the first time I heard a singer perform it live (Judy Gorman, who played it brilliantly for a women’s studies conference at my undergrad school back in the day), and I’ve never quite been able to do it. When I heard Bonnie Raitt do it, I was blown away.
I think it’s possible for me to say, now that I’ve learned it and thought about it for a while, that I never understood it at all, which is why every attempt to sing it I ever made was doomed to turn out cheesy, no matter how pretty I might have made the sounds.
I was really struck by this realization when I clicked on some cover versions on YouTube. There are a LOT of pretty talented kids out there. Can they sing this song? Sure! They can often do it very, very well! I can’t help feeling, though, that their singing is empty of something the song desperately needs, something Prine and Raitt know that a teenage girl usually doesn’t. Consider young Zoe, for example:
She’s got a very nice voice, and her guitar playing is much better than mine. :) What I’m about to say here should not be read as a personal criticism of this young woman at all. She does just fine. It’s just that, musically speaking, there’s something…off. Something missing. The notes are fine. The tone is fine. The recording is fine (sound quality’s really good for one of these YouTube jobbies). There’s just something…missing. The song is sweet when she sings it, really. It is not the song, however, of an old woman whose dreams have escaped her, whose husband just doesn’t fucking TALK to her anymore. It’s bizarrely cheery, sung and played the way this young woman does.
Obviously, age isn’t the only issue here. Some of it is simply a choice of playing/performing style that might not necessarily suit the subject matter of the lyrics. Young people can have life experiences that dwarf the lives of some of their more sheltered elders, and they can express it in song. Still, I can’t help but think that there are some songs, (like “Angel from Montgomery”) that are best left to the experienced elders.
In the spirit of humility, I offer my own rather silly version, which has its own problems (many of them related to experience and not just my incompetence :) ). I feel like someday I might really be able to sing the song right, though.
Someday. Not today, but someday.
*That’s a fancy way of saying I’m turning into kind of an old fart. In case you were wondering.