(Tales from) The Riverbank

Writing about music, it strikes me, is like painting about health. Why? Because in both cases it’s about rendering an internal state in a mode that one hopes is accessible to others. Quite often the attempt fails.

But at AHC we were never supposed to be just about the foibles, self-serving and otherwise, of the elites. We were supposed to be about the things that feed the mind and soul: books and music. All else is ego. We’ve done books but I’ve resisted music. Let’s try.

What prompts me is a shuffle moment–one of those times when the right song comes up at random and you have to rethink your relationship to it. Yesterday it was a song by Paul Weller and The Jam. (I’m sparing you the well-intentioned but lacking fan sites/museums for the band.)

Back in November 1981 The Jam released a single, Absolute Beginners, and the B side, Tales from the Riverbank, quickly became my favorite. It captured, and still brings me to, a moment. There’s a point, when we enter adulthood when we know but can’t admit that we’ve lost something precious. Here’s Weller (at 23) moving from childhood to longing to anger:

Bring you a tale from the pastel fields
Where we ran when we were young
This is a tale from the water meadows
Trying to spread some hope into your heart…

True it’s a dream mixed with nostalgia
But it’s a dream that I’ll always hang on to
That I’ll always run to

Now life is so critical, life is too cynical
We lose our innocence, we lose our very soul

The anger is, ultimately, overcome by the long outro in which holding on to and running to the dream stops being a statement of longing and becomes a statement of defiance. Brilliant.

It turns out, though, that there is a demo version with slightly different lyrics:

Bring you a tale from the pastel fields
Where we ran when we were young
This is a tale from the water meadows
Spreading joy and love into your hearts

True it’s a dream I live and I wonder
But it’s the scene that I’ll always hang on to
That I’ll always run to

The magic of leaving when you start to believe it
the magicĀ  between us, the magic of innocence

This is a completely different song. Instead of trying to spread hope it’s definitely spreading joy and love. Instead of the weepy admixture of loss and longing implied by nostalgia he’s living and wondering at dreams. And at the bridge it’s all magical thinking.

My instant reaction was that the song as released was better. And yet as I listened I realized that what I had were two different songs. The demo, strange as it sounded since the original is burned into my consciousness, is actually full of childlike wonder. If it fails to connect with me in the here and now that’s my limitation.

When my daughter was born I told my wife I thought we spent our lives losing our innocence and the only way we regain it is by becoming parents and watching our children enjoy it. That’s what I think is buried in the original version of the song. I think I knew it when I first heard it. I know it when I still hear it.

That’s the great thing about a 3-minute pop song. It can connect you with yourself in a way that you didn’t think was possible. Thank God for pop.

Addendum: Why should you have to work harder than you have to? Here’s the band playing TFTR on Swap Shop.

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