Sunday, September 28, 2008

That Song: “Like a Friend” by Pulp

One of the odd things about music and emotions is that they don’t seem to connect as strongly as you get older. It’s harder for me as an adult to point at certain songs as milestones or markers in life, indicative of a person or situation from that time. There are many songs like that from my childhood and teenage years. I don’t know why that is. I’m listening to far more music now than when I was a kid – music of all kinds, my breadth and understanding of it having grown in ways I’d never have anticipated. Maybe it’s too much music? Because I can recall being a kid and getting stuck on 45 singles, and doing nothing but sitting there and listening, through my Radio Shack Nova 40 headphones, staring at the turntable, for hours on end. I can’t focus like that anymore on one song.

But every now and then … a song or band will break through and nail it. One of the strongest instances of that came in the late 90s, coincidentally tied into my trip to Scotland detailed in the previous post. When I was over there, I was buying CDs like crazy – every time we’d hit a store, I’d walk out with a handful. I recall Castle had just reissued the first eight of those long-deleted Kinks albums from the 60s, but only in the UK – I came back with all of them, and then some. The people in customs must have thought I was a CD merchant by all the stuff I had packed in my huge suitcase.

One thing I had noticed while in all those Scottish music stores: a poster for a new album by a band called Pulp – This Is Hardcore. A striking poster, of a beautiful, naked blonde haired woman who looked ghastly, like a corpse, face down, on a sofa. She almost looked like a mannequin. I new vaguely of Pulp – they were nowhere near as big in the U.S. as they were in the U.K. “Common People” had made the rounds of few mix tapes among my friends – I liked it. (After my Pulp transformation, I would recognize it as one of the best songs of the 90s, and one of the best working-class songs ever.)

I didn’t think much of it, but when I got back to America, a few weeks later, I was in my favorite used CD haunt in Manhattan, Sounds on St. Marks Place. The mid-to-late 90s were a boom-time in the used CD trade – I could find just about any release, generally for $4.00 to $8.00, in those bins. (This was just before Napster exploded and changed everything.) I haven’t been to Sounds in eons but assume it’s still there. From about 1993 through 2000, I was there at least once a week and buying great used CDs by the handful. As fate would have it, I saw that same Pulp album in their used bin for $3.99, and figured what the hell.

Little did I know I had just bought my favorite album of the 90s. When I got home and put it on, from the first listen, I was floored. Jarvis Cocker, the lead singer and lyricist, just nailed it on that album – he has since mentioned that was the most depressing, haggard time of his life, that he was blown out by the major step-up in fame brought by their previous album, Different Class, and was either high or emotionally numb most of the time. You can hear that in some of the songs of the album, but you can also hear a deeply-talented songwriter working through his condition and leaving traces of humility, grace and that quiet, British working-class sense of just trying to get by.

“Help the Aged” is the signature song from the album for me – a bit of a put-on, but in it, the recognition that we all get old, and that old person you’re watching shuffle down the street, once upon a time, was just like any young person struggling with life. When Cocker sings help the aged, he’s really singing, “Help me.” My favorite line, simply stated: “You can’t run away from yourself.” He senses he’s going off the rails and feeling just as defenseless and forgotten as anyone in a retirement home.


“Glory Days’ is another great one, in which Cocker recognizes the glory days everyone fawns over nostalgically are really a lot of down time and bullshit, that must seem like heaven when life gets more hectic and responsible. He recognizes the laziness of youth (“I could be a genius/If I just put my mind to it/And I could do anything/If only I could get around to it.”) and accepts it on its own terms. The strength of both songs, and the whole album, is the heroic production – each sounds like an anthem – dramatic build-ups to big choruses, walls of electric guitar, soaring solos, banks of keyboards and big melodies … all backing up a guy who’s singing about how befuddled he is with himself and the world.

At that time in my life, early 30s, I really needed to hear that message, because I was feeling much the same way. About to pack in a job that was wearing me out with the stress level. Not the sleek, untroubled youth who landed in New York a decade earlier. I was feeling at wit’s end and not seeing any way out, save to stop and gather my wits for a few months (which I did, at great financial expense!). I gather Jarvis Cocker was roughly the same age as me and had similar mixed emotions towards his life at the time, albeit his involved going through the meat grinder of fame and nearly losing his mind. Well, you rarely get famous working in an office, but you do get pushed hard for big bucks sometimes, so the scenarios aren’t all that disparate. You feel like you're living someone else's life, not your own, and that life sort of blows.

But the last song on the album was the one that got me. I should note that the American version of the album was different from the British, which ended rightfully on the big close-out ballad, “The Day after the Revolution.” The American version tacked on a soundtrack song called “Like a Friend” from the movie Great Expectations starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Ethan Hawke. (I still haven’t seen it and don’t intend to.) I’m sure Cocker and the band couldn’t have been pleased with this as it disrupted the flow of the album …

… But what a song! For me, "Like a Friend" was THE Pulp song, a song I played repeatedly the first few weeks and can still play now repeatedly. Like the other songs on the album, it starts innocently enough, a slow ballad with Cocker pining over a woman who doesn’t seem to give a shit about him, recognizes she has no feelings for him or sees him as “just a friend” but ultimately doesn’t care and pledges to go on hanging in there, even though he knows she’s Ms. Wrong.

But 1:42 into the song, things kick into dramatic overdrive, a churning rhythm guitar hooks up with a pounding snare drum, lead guitar weaves circles around each, the drums pick up the pace, hitting harder, and then Cocker lays it all out:

You are the last drink I never should drunk.
You are the body hidden in the trunk.
You are the habit I can't seem to kick.
You are my secrets on the front page every week.
You are the car I never should have bought.
You are the train I never should have caught.
You are the cut that makes me hide my face.
You are the party that makes me feel my age.
Like a car crash I can see but I just can't avoid.
Like a plane I've been told I never should board.
Like a film that's so bad but I've gotta stay til the end.
Let me tell you now, it's lucky for you that we're friends.

If you’ve downloaded the track, you can hear how exciting the song grows when the pace picks up and Cocker launches into his litany of hard truths. Of course, the strength of the song is it’s a love song – a demented, skewed one, much in the same vein as “Every Breath You Take” by The Police.

And I think we’ve all been there, unfortunately! Probably more than once. The song made me recall S, a beautiful Asian girl I fell hard for in my 20s, and spent the next 2-3 years falling in and out of touch with, usually predicated upon whichever boyfriend was falling out of favor with her, and her desire to have a sane man in her life. The most dramatic turn came the night the U.S. launched Desert Storm against Iraq (January 17, 1991 ... thank you, Wikipedia), with her phoning me about two in the morning and choosing that odd time to get back into it with me, whatever “it” was, and I recall those few months after being pretty good times with her, a nice connection, but as time wore on, the usual “where is this thing going/most likely nowhere” vibe rolled around, only this time, I made a very hard call and ended it, much to her surprise. And mine – I don’t think I grew a set of balls until that moment.

But she was “that girl” in a sense of someone who drove you nuts, whom you know was bad for you, but, christ, you just couldn’t stop being drawn towards her. The siren calling your ship through the fog to the rocky coast! The thing was, we got along swimmingly, she really got my sense of humor, I could make her laugh just by looking at her a certain way, and I had a sense of her artistic inclinations and encouraged her every step of the way, which I gather was something not many people were doing in her life. I remember after I called everything off with her, months later, I wrote her a letter really laying into her, but I think the greater reality is I should have had the previously-noted testicular growth moment 2-3 years earlier the first time I let her know my feelings were more than “friendly” and that first gray area rolled in like a years-long bank of fog. I should have been smarter, but I just wasn't.

In essence, you never stop loving certain people, you just get older and wiser, and recognize when it’s time to cut and run, or when it’s time to hang around. Of course, my issue since then has been developing the “hang around” trait which tends to get burned out of you after a few situations like that. That sort of balance, or more accurately tug of war, between cynicism and allowing yourself to feel genuine emotion, is the heart of Jarvis Cocker’s work, and the song “Like a Friend.” I’ll link to another song, maybe even a better song, that I’m sure Jarvis Cocker would acknowledge as being such: “Just Another High” by Roxy Music. If we could all pull such gems from the rubble of doomed relationships, the world would be a better place.

1 comment:

Andy S. said...

"Of course, the strength of the song is it’s a love song – a demented, skewed one, much in the same vein as “Every Breath You Take” by The Police."

Except that the Police song is about someone stalking a lover who's jilted him. The Pulp song is more about friendship and how you put up with someone's bad qualities even though you know you're spitting into the wind. I can identify with that in a big way. And I don't have to tell you that I concur with your assessment of This Is Hardcore.