Monday, July 15, 2013

Crimes Against The Lyric—(Re-) Covering Richard Hell’s “Time”

Crimes Against The Lyric: (Re-) Covering Richard Hell’s “Time”

While writing an essay that interprets a work of art--song, poem, play, story, novel, etc-- in ways that the author didn't intend may be considered a kind of 'crime,'--I usually don't mind being subjected to such interpretation--as a writer myself-- if it's not presented dogmatically, or definitively as the "only true" meaning--but when one unintentionally changes the words of the original in ways that clearly weaken the song, I consider it a crime, especially if I'm the one who committed it!

When I recently recorded a solo-piano version of Richard Hell’s song “Time,” I thought I was paying a reverential tribute to a great song which listeners may not otherwise be familiar with—a brilliant, beautiful, even visionary song that could also be called a poem in the best sense of that word. My version was also intended to be a tribute to the Minutemen’s cover; they recorded it both electrically and acoustically, and the feel they achieved in the acoustic version inspires the way I played it on the piano (lacking a band and an amazing guitarist like dBoon or Robert Quine).

Lyrically, the Minutemen version of “Time” is based on an early Voidoids demo rather than the official Destiny Street version, which they didn't have the advantage of knowing. In the process, my version unfortunately misremembers some crucial lyrics; I have unintentionally contributed 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.

I sang:
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 he's 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 a 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.

(Hell's original lyrics that I miss are in bold)

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 the conditional hope of "if") 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 survival as a physical entity…beyond the hearse.

The song may not “say it all at 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.


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