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Livin’ on Sugar Mountain
Neil Young tells the story that in his late teens, before he reached drinking age, he hung out at a club called Sugar Mountain. No one over twenty was permitted in this club, so when his birthday came, he went through deep mourning at his loss of youth and passage into maturity. From this experience, and very much to our benefit, he produced the song:
“Oh, to live on Sugar Mountain
With the Barkers and the colored balloons.
You can’t be twenty on Sugar Mountain
Though you’re thinking that you’re leaving there too soon.
You’re leaving there too soon …”
It may seem anachronistic to be talking about an almost comically mournful song from 1971 in association with Adam Duritz’s “Round Here”, released in 1993. I think, however, that as Counting Crows’ signature piece (people who know little more of the band than what they hear on the radio are likely to be familiar with it) “Round Here” is almost doomed to be talked about. As we continue discussing important works of art and literature long after their original exhibit or publication, so I think it is valid to continue talking about the popular music that makes up the lexicon of our experience. Furthermore, it seems to me that there are confusions about “Round Here”, perhaps because it is both an anthem and an elegy to youth. It celebrates the joys of being young while it mourns the pain that comes with dawning adulthood and the inevitability of change.
According to Carl Jung, the student of Sigmund Freud who contributed so much to our understanding of ourselves, the human being is distinguished from other mammals by its tendency to think primarily symbolically, and to be able to manipulate communicative signs. Jung talks about three categories of symbol. The first, the universal symbol, is one that is recognized and carries similar meanings cross culturally, as the sun is associated with the godhead, the moon with madness, mystery and loneliness, and water with life. The second, the conventional symbol, acquires customary meaning through agreed upon conventions. Flags and uniforms, numerals and cars, brand names, dog breeds, and language itself are all examples of symbols that carry a conventionalized meaning for us. Finally there is accidental symbol, which is personal, and acquires meaning through some accident of experience. The scent of dry leaves or pine needles calls to mind seasonal holidays and can affect our attitudes profoundly. A few notes of song, the vision of a building, a ball field, a balloon, a word uttered in anger or love – all call to mind a host of images and emotions. When I was about nine years old, I walked in on my parents while they were making love. My father said, “Scram!”, and even now, so many years later, the “scram” word, the old “s”-word, makes me squirm. I can’t stand it. These are accidental symbols.
“Round Here” is rich with symbolism, as well as with images so concrete we feel they have to be real. This realness comes from the landscape of youth we recognize, the neighborhoods, the streets, the parking lots in which we were children but have finally come of age. It is a landscape that “radiates” the spirit of our present and our past lives and our sense of unity with friends. Note the number of issues “we” are united in: we are “carving out our names,” our individuality, yet we cling to the forms of visual expression that present us to the world as a unified group. “We all look the same.” We are old enough to enjoy certain milestones of achievement: sex, driving, and the right to stay up late. But we are also plagued with adult problems.
The character, Maria, is a case study for adolescent identity integration. She is “walking on a wire” between childhood and adulthood. Although sexually active, her energy to love truly is spent in romantic, and also safe fantasies about Elvis. She is in the process of forming her personal conception of religion, and is “close to understanding Jesus.” Therefore, she is thinking seriously, as we all do at certain stages of our lives, about life and death. When she’s uncomfortable, “she has trouble acting normal”. That is, she has no established personal identity, but must “act” her way through difficult situations. She understands the concept that her problems are in her head, at least to the degree that she can choose how to feel about them. “ There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so” (Hamlet, II ii. 247-48). But she has not yet learned the adult trick of letting go, emotionally, of the things she can’t control. Therefore she is “crying,” as a child cries when overwhelmed.
The speaker, who is also going through a crisis of change, expresses a melancholy, male bafflement at Maria’s tears, and at his own helplessness. Some part of his youth has already begun to die, and he expresses his sense of it primarily in symbolic language. This dying self survives “like a ghost,” rendered nearly invisible, while his adult self struggles in the fog of his unknowing. Perhaps only angels, he tells us – who witness silently – perceive the lack of integrity between the morality that is taught and applied morality we experience as adults, “the crumbling difference between wrong and right.” Meanwhile the speaker searches himself, moving in and out between the perceived universe, “the rain” and his interior self, and doesn’t turn up much of anything. “I don’t know,” he tells us.
The pivotal contest between child and adult occurs in the parking lot in the exchange with the suicide. She is swilling from an open bottle, drowning the remains of her common sense, and offering shots to all around. But the shot taken is also a sort of mental photograph, an image permanently exposed on the brain. “Round here, she’s always on my mind.” However, this image is a superficial one, and the speaker must accept his own inability, as must we all, to perceive what’s going on inside another person. The answer to the question, “Can’t you see my walls are crumbling?” is: No. Not only can he not see it, but he can not do anything about it. The speaker expresses his annoyance and disgust: “She must be tired of something.” The character is in some sense both parallel and foil to Maria. Both young women feel desperation, and believe they are facing the possibility of death. Both inspire the speaker’s helplessness. The difference is the way the speaker feels. In dealing with Maria, the speaker is essentially compromised by love, but in the case of the suicide, he takes a stand against being made responsible.
All of these characters, the we, the speaker, Maria and the suicide, are undergoing the same conflict with one another that they are feeling within themselves, and all suffer from a certain paralysis, an antithesis between word and deed expressed thorough the symbols of lion and lamb. Yet, in spite of the pain, even grief, that each is experiencing, “Round Here” is, on the whole, an upbeat tune. The confident tone is in part achieved by the music, a progression of chords which doubles the words rather than merely accompanying them. Duritz builds from image to image toward a nearly chorused defiance in the final verse, and avoids sinking on a minor note until he reaches the very last bars.
So when the short series of arpeggios that make up the opening notes of “Round Here” soar over the crowd and you start screaming and singing, you know why. For those minutes, although you know you are “under the gun,” you’re livin’ on Sugar Mountain and you still have “lots of time.”
At some juncture, late in J. R. R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit, one of the minor characters tells Bilbo: “Never seek advice from elves, for they will say both ‘yes’ and ‘no’.”
When I first heard Adam Duritz’s “Colorblind”, I took it to be a discussion of the conflict between the inner and the outer man, with reference to racial characteristics, specifically white and black skin. The speaker is bi-racial and misunderstood. I heard the word “colorblind’ as it most often used in contemporary speech: to refuse to make decisions or to draw conclusions about people because of physical differences between them, chiefly race. I understood the limits between the inner and outer self to be set in playground political parlance: “No one gets to come in,” and the inner self, bound and unified in a series of declarative statements: “I am… I am… I am…”, to sustain a deep terror of human contact. The speaker is shaking and stuttering, his tongue stuck like taffy to the roof of his mouth.
The music accompanying the lyric reinforces this impression. The piano moves between major and minor chords, hesitating and then rushing forward as shy people do, the triangle tinkles tentatively, and the woodwind floats over all in a timeless melancholy that mirrors the universal and unending nature of human suffering. Duritz’s voice trembles with some words and soars with others. Finally, he lets us know, he is “ready” for contact, and if we weren’t so sympathetic, and so deeply engaged by the speaker, perhaps we would feel he protests too much, for the “I am ready”s begin to sound like a series of deep breaths taken before a plunge.
Lately, however, I’ve started wondering if I’m really getting it right with this song. It may be a manifestation of “the closer you get, the less you see” phenomenon. It may be that the song, under too close an examination and against my will, is beginning to deconstruct itself. Deconstruction theory postulates (and here it is in a nutshell, in case you’ve been wondering – it took me a year’s reading to figure this one out, and glossaries in lit texts don’t help – who writes this stuff anyway?) that no work of literature, or of any other type of composition, including music, has a determinable meaning. It is, like the Seinfeld show, “about nothing’, although deconstructionism prefers the term “empty center.” Meaning is not a fixed thing you can find, they say. It is not a rock in a field, and it is not your job to find the right rock. Meaning is an EVENT that takes place when your mind plays with the words or sounds, or even when he words or sounds play with themselves. Yep.
I’ve never liked deconstruction.
Anyway, what I’ve been wondering lately is whether or not the song is really about the superficial self opposed to the real person, under the skin. Maybe the color that the speaker is blind to is all color. Maybe he sees only black and white, and is eager to declare what he knows for sure: coffee is black; egg is white. Maybe his injunction that we pull him out “from inside” is not a request for contact but a plea for tolerance – for the limitations of his vision, for his internal contradictions, for his sense of being – in a multitude of ways other than racially – both black and white. In that case the song would almost say what it seems not to say: that for every “I am” there is another, equally true but contradictory “I am.” And, if you think about it, interior conflict is actually more true to human experience than is any absolute. For example, if you say, “I am humane,” then you must also admit, “I am cruel.” If you say, “I am civilized,” then you are also forced to acknowledge, “I am barbaric.” “I am clever.” “I am insipid.” The more you do this, the more mutually exclusive assertions – all true – you discover, and also the more blurry become the distinctions, like “I’m careful with money,” and “I’m going to the mall.”
The fact that contradictions exist within the self is why, when Duritz’s speaker asserts that he is in the act of opening himself to the listener (“I am folded, and unfolded and unfolding”), he sounds only more or less sure of himself. The series of declarative statements actually reveals the impossibility of declaring anything. To make a claim is nearly always, like the elves’ advice, to say both yes and no.
One thing I want to make clear is my use of the term “speaker.” I think it is important not to confuse the writer, Adam Duritz, with the voice of his creation, that is, with the character or speaker in this song, or in any song. Some of his songs contain very obvious first person narrating personae, and there’s nothing new in this. Consider the stalker who speaks in Sting’s “Every Breath You Take” or the idiotic fan in Mark Knopfler’s “MTV.” As Duritz’s audience we must allow him the freedom not only to draw on his experience, but also to invent. No artist – nor anyone else, for that matter – should have to feel, as the “This Desert Life” cd cover suggests, that he not only lives his life in a fishbowl, but his thoughts are public property.
I have only once had the pleasure of discussing Duritz’s “Colorblind” in the classroom. Although my primary field is literature, I also teach a humanities course which attempts to shovel together all of Western art, from the cave paintings to Basquiat, and all of Western music, from Gregorian chant to, well, how about Counting Crows? On one of the last days of class students bring in their own favorites. I think the student who brought in “Colorblind” was surprised to discover not only that his professor knew the song, but could talk about it with some authority. At any rate, I had, ever after, his perhaps misplaced but hat-sweeping respect.
Popular music, to me, is a serious art form that deserves analysis. To explore it is to find new ways to appreciate and enjoy it.
“MIAMI CITY BALLET: THE QUICK STEP: UNSPEAKABLE JAZZ MUST GO, BROWARD CENTER FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS, FORT LAUDERDALE, FLORIDA, MARCH 2001,” Dance International Magazine, June 2002
Edward Villella is obsessed, we might say with little hyperbole.
In March, Miami City Ballet staged its world premiere of the second act of a work in progress, The Quick Step: Unspeakable Jazz Must Go, from the incomplete, four-act ballet, The Neighborhood Ballroom, destined to premiere in its entirety, Spring 2003. This stylish romp is grounded only loosely in story – an exploration of the jazz movement in American social dance during Prohibition as it appears in a single, New York City dance hall. The ballroom from Act I has become a speakeasy. Its clientele are the rebellious youth who defy convention and threaten established values with intimate body-to-body dancing. The stock characters are predictably jocose, and the central conflict is an old one. The female principal, Kiki, danced by Mary Carmen Catoya, arrives on the scene, strikes some attitudes, seduces the Poet, Yann Trividic – it is a confrontational, Latinesque seduction – and departs with her suitor, her regular beau, as the Poet returns to his real occupation: the manuscript.
What this ballet does new is to present a serious argument about the cliché of female supremacy in dancing. It is a witty, thoroughly supported challenge (both in the quality of the choreography and of the dancing) to Balanchine’s much-publicized claim, “Ballet is woman,” a sentiment that seems to have stoked Villella’s continuing ire with some persistence. For like the character in Robert Frost’s “The Death of the Hired Hand,” “[a]fter so many years he still keeps finding/ Good arguments he sees he might have used.” Unspeakable Jazz Must Go is such an argument.
Villella’s choreography for men is fresh, rapid, frequently waggish, and requires a mastery of dance forms from male ballet dancers who defy facile classifications. By casting female dancers in support parts, as male dancers traditionally serve as backdrops to female, he is resetting the limits of our expectations. Even when women occupy traditional central placement, they frequently do so as props. In one comic sequence, for example, the principal is lifted and supported by four lunch-pail aesthetes who bandy her about like a piece of lumber. The ballerina is dead wood, Villella’s comment seems to be. Her beauty is sham, her attraction negligible, and her engagement mere sport. Finally, she is simply not important. Real men would rather be working.
Two sets of characters that delight are the cross dressers, Two Young Women, danced by Marc Spielberger and Evan Unks, and Three Gentlemen, danced by Arnold Quintane, Michelle Merrell, and Callie Manning in the first cast and Kenneth Easter, Claudia Bailetti and Jessica Shults in the second. One is not misled by the travesty, nor by the cigars, the drop-waist chiffon dresses, doll make up and fetching caps. This is a mockery that is intended to entertain rather than to deceive. Spielberger and Unks posture like characters in a Greek frieze, while Quintane’s sharp terre a terre jazz style conveys the elegance of Astaire, with the sure placement and solid return that speak to Quintane’s Paris Opera training.
The music for this piece is a compilation of mostly familiar tunes composed by Duke Ellington, Cecil Mack, Gus Kahn and Jack Yellen, including The Charleston, Yes, Sir! That’s My Baby and Ain’t She Sweet?
Unspeakable Jazz Must Go premiered sandwiched between a flawless performance of Balanchine’s Square Dance, and a sadly – and I felt deliberately – tedious Paquita, the Grand Pas, Marius Petipa’s reconstruction of the 1846 Mazilier choreography. The sense in Miami is that ballet companies can’t sell tickets unless classical ballet is in the program. Paquita, here, presented beside Unspeakable Jazz, is a shaming finger. It admonishes us for this seeming preference, and presses us to admit to what we really enjoy.