Thoughts by Richard Bleil
The lyrics go, “Oh, Harley Darling, you took my love, you took him down the lonely road to the stars above.” A powerful song by the Pretty Reckless about a love lost to a motorcycle accident, and it’s playing as I write this post. As I listen to it, I can’t help but wonder how many people are affected by it with memories of lost ones.
Music is and incredibly powerful art form, and I think of lyricists as the modern-day poets of our society. While there are actual poets who still work (one of my friends is even a published poet), I don’t believe that poetry has the impact in modern society that it had had in the past, but music still has the courage to touch on subjects that are difficult from societal issues to politics.
Some years ago, Pink released an album called Mizzunderstood. I’m not her demographic (“old white guy” is not a popular demographic anywhere these days) but I’ve always adored Pink, and the more I learn about her, her work and her dedication to her family, the more I like her. My (at that time very young) friend wanted to borrow the CD, which normally I would not have a problem with, but within the album was the song Family Portrait. The song deals with the end of a marriage, the anger and insults that are so commonly uttered and often within earshot of the child who has nothing to do with what is happening but cannot escape it. Before I would lend it to her, I played the song for her divorced mother fearing that the lyrics might strike a bit too close to home for my young friend (by the way, let’s get this out of the way…I used to date her mother, and I still count both her and her mother as my family just so you don’t get the wrong idea about me). Her mother, in turn, seemed concerned enough that the two of us played it for her in our presence to allow her the opportunity to discuss any feelings that come up as a result of the lyrics. Of course, once she was okay with it, I of course let her borrow the CD.
When I hear Telegraph Road by Dire Straits, to this day I’ll cry, especially when they sing, “I’ve seen desperation explode into flames and I don’t want to see it again.” The song is actually about financial desperation in times of recession, focusing on a town built on a telegraph road in the distant past that has hit bad times and all of the industry is closing. In this situation, the desperation to which they are referring are people without enough food because there’s no more work in the town, yet when I hear that line in particular my mind goes elsewhere. Specifically, I remember the Los Angeles riots of 1992. I was about thirty at the time, so I suppose it’s the first time that I was old enough to be aware of what was happening and to actually understand it. Four white police officers had beaten a minority a year earlier. In 1992, they were acquitted launching the riots. In the end, 1100 buildings were damaged, which is the least of the story. There were also 2300 people injured, and 50 killed.
This was something of an eye-opener to me. I guess that, at that time, the racial tension and systemic racism hadn’t really struck me yet. The riots were something like an earthquake, meaning that when two tectonic plates rub, they don’t just erupt. Instead, they’ll build up pressure, like a spring, with the stress increasing until finally it releases violently and with great destruction. With systemic racism, the stress among people is much the same, with simmering anger and building tension until something just triggers it causing a response that could have been avoided had it been addressed earlier. And the tension is again building in our society. When Dire Straits sing “I’ve seen desperation explode into flames”, this is the image that comes to my mind.
Some time ago I had heard of a study that seemed to suggest that today’s music is a psychological barometer for the social issues arising in the near future. In the ‘80’s, rap became the predominant style of music replacing Disco of the ‘70’s. Many people (including myself) were put off by this violent and disturbing music form, but many of these people, like me, were white. Rap was never written for us, but rather was an expression of frustration, of oppression, and of anger building within the minority segment of our nation. It told of the systemic racism that we’re finally beginning to see in our society and foreshadowed the race riots of the ‘90’s, and the demonstrations that continue today. I wonder what the music of today is foreshadowing?