1. “Time” (Richard Hell And The Voidoids via The Minutemen meets Tom Waits; a Video by Jeff Feuerzeig).
When I played at the Piano Bar in Hollywood, and the bartender requested Tom Waits, I played an instrumental version of “Time” from his 1986 album Rain Dogs, I always loved the melody to that song, and feel in many ways the song has more power as an instrumental, especially during a piano bar happy hour set where I’m not the only center of attention---and can mix instrumentals with vocal songs. It can showcase my “Bluesy, soulful” piano and give my voice a break. It often goes over well, and I hear people singing some of the phrases to the song, and sometimes I’ll even join in on the chorus. There are a lot of amazing phrases in that song, but the verses feel interchangeable for me, which might explain why audiences often mix up the words, yet most remember the suggestive ambiguity of the chorus, “it’s time, time, time that you love….”
After two verses of this slow instrumental, I like to collage it with what is in many ways a more “obscure” (less popular) song than Tom Waits “Time.” Richard Hell’s song of the same name, from his second album: 1982’s Destiny Street. When I do Richard Hell’s song, I usually sing all the words; or at least I thought I did! But since my version is actually based on the Minutemen's cover of the song http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_kzuNNBumAY, which is based on an early demo of the song, my version unintentionally contributes to the confusion over what the correct lyrics are. Since each word contributes to the overall structural integrity in Hell’s version, I need to call attention to them to clarify this confusion, and truly pay tribute to Richard Hell’s songwriting. In every case, I weaken the suggestive power and wisdom that is conveyed in Hell’s lyrics.
I. The First Verse
In the first verse, Hell sings:
Time and time again I knew what I was doing, and
time and time again I just made things worse.
It seems you see the most of what is really true
When you're stepping into your hearse.
The first two lines hooked me when I heard the song. I love the fact that the speaker isn’t simply saying “you can’t know what you’re doing” (a lyrical commonplace), but appealing to an over-intellectual like myself. He could, and that made it worse, and now he’s ready to take responsibility for being too smart for his own good. The third and fourth line help drive home the first two lines, but in the version I sing, they contradict (and weaken) it.
It seems you’ve seen the most of what is really true
and you’re stepping into your head
The most egregious mistake I make is changing “hearse” to “head.” It not only loses the end-rhyme, but more importantly, changes the meaning. Any discerning reader of poetry, who is unfamiliar with Hell’s version, may ask, with absolute justification: Why oh why would someone who realizes that knowing what’s he doing just makes things worse want to step back into his over-self-conscious “head?”
This entirely misses the suggestion that the ‘self-knowledge’ of the first two lines can only truly happen when “you’re stepping into your hearse” (a place for dead bodies), or at least a metaphorical hearse. In addition, my other word changes (“you” becomes “you’ve” and “when” becomes “and”) place the entire verse back into the past tense. Hell uses the second person present tense to distance himself from the hearse (or head). The speaker doesn’t want to die (again), and thus doesn’t need to know what he does.
II. The Chorus
The next major mangling I make occurs in the choruses. My version comes closer to 1979 Demo (available on Hell’s Spurts compilation), but the Destiny Street version is clearer, and superior:
Only time can write a song that's really really real.
The most a man can do is say the way its playing feels
and know he only knows as much as time to him reveals.
III. Second Verse
And when I want to write a song that says it all at once
like time sublimely silences the whys
I know that if I try I'm going to take a fall at once
and splatter there between my lies.
My major mangling here occurs on the 3rd and 4th lines (I may have heard “whys” as “wise,” but I don’t think that affected the performance; a fortuitous audio double entendre). Replacing “a fall” with “that fall” trivializes the fall, and “splatter there between my lies” is a much more physical image than what I sing (just like “Hearse” at the end of the first verse). In both these cases, I make the song more abstract (these are just about the only two “images” in these songs, but they carry with them a heavy weight).
IV. Third Verse
If this was not enough, my most egregious crime against the lyric comes in the third (and final) verse. In the Destiny Street version, Hell sings:
We are made of it and, if we give submission
among our chances there's a chance we can choose.
And if we take it, by uncertainty's permission
then it's impossible to lose.
As “Time” moves from the speaker’s confessions of his past failings and present crisis in the first two verses to a more universal (or transpersonal) statement of hard-won faith (or at least hope) in this verse, the “I” disappears, as if “Time” itself has actually written these lines. In the version I sang, however, “then it’s impossible to lose” falls flat and feels like a non-sequitor; on a lyrical level, what I sang was hard to believe (for me even), whereas the beautiful inconclusive conclusion on the Destiny Street version opens the song up to time, chance, uncertainty...and even survival... beyond the hearse.
The song may not “say it all it once” but the subtle metaphysical turns here can say many things at different times to different people, and suggests a deeply profound ethics, but only if “we give submission” to what time reveals. I will spare you a lengthy paraphrase of the ethics suggested in these lines, as well as a structural analysis of how this last verse enhances the depth, and gravitas, of each and every word in the chorus to make it more convincing to the worse over-intellectual egocentric or nihilistic cynic. The most I can do, however, with this song is say the way its playing feels, and if I’m ever requested to play this song again, I must un-remember my mangled lyrics, let them sink in, and let time do the rest.
Here’s My Version with Jeff:
And here’s The Minutemen’s electric version (couldn’t find their acoustic on Youtube; nor could I find Hell's DESTINY STREET version, only the demo on which the Minutemen's is based) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_kzuNNBumAY
Here's the Minutemen's acoustic version:
Here's the Minutemen's acoustic version:
C. 2013, Chris Stroffolino