Friday, August 14, 2009

Surfing With David Gray

I trust you've heard this one. What I DON'T trust is you telling me, "Oh yeah, dude, I know exactly what this song's about," because you don't. No one does. It belongs to the world of myth, and we can't fully understand, at least not in ways expressible in words that are not the words of the song. Probably not even Mr. Gray, if asked on an edition of VH1 Storytellers to explain his song, could explain his song, but that's what he gets for grappling with myth.

If it weren't played on Hot AC radio formats, or if I weren't so prejudiced against same, I'd call it "visionary" or something. I do love Mr. Gray's visions of changing colors and the chemicals rushing through his bloodstream. Often when I get up in the morning, I feel that chemicals are rushing through my bloodstream and the ghosts of electricity are howling in the bones of my face. This is before I drink my coffee, so I don't think the chemicals in Davey's blood have anything to do with "drugs" or "meth" or anything seedy like that.

Though maybe... in verse 1 he's watching late night TV and thinking of HER; verse 2 he's "running wild" on "reds" (not unlike Faster Pussycat--hmmm...) and thinking of HER; verse 3 he's finally detoxed, strolling through nature, and he gets home and SHE appears ("I turn around to see you smiling there in front of me").

But is it really HER? I don't think so. He's just hallucinating HER, because the pleading refrain is the same both times, before SHE appears and after "SHE" appears, and it doesn't seem recontextualized at all, the way final refrains are often recontextualized in country songs--so if the smiling person in front of Mr. Gray really is HER, it's not that great a final refrain.

Maybe what's preventing her from loving him is some excess of caution, and he wants her to let go, to embrace her inner Babylon by just ignoring all the superego crap that gets in the way of their love. "Let go your heart! Let go your head! And FEEL it now!" Because really--he's a doled-out British singer-songwriter recording albums in his bedroom, probably got bad teeth--what's she doing with him? And he doesn't give himself much credit for his behavior in the relationship. He's a fool, he made bad mistakes, he's afraid to own up, but why can't she just LOVE HIM? Get rid of your puritanical Judeo-Christian hangups and get all Babylon with me, baby!

At least, that's how I hear it. I don't think he lives in Babylon, either literally or figuratively. Babylon isn't the place where the lights change colors. Even in the hustle of verse 2, with its running, changing, pushing, rushing, there's a kind of stasis--we're seeing the activity from within the stillness of his head. It's like one of those time-lapse photos where the car headlights and taillights are smeared into blurry lines.

Rather, Babylon is where he wants to be, and where he wants HER to want to be, and he holds out Babylon as an incantation--"Look, this is where you could be. Let go." Babylon is the culmination of every verse and refrain, and should be the culmination of his life with HER. Is it the antithesis of his everyday "correct, better, or Right civilization" (our working definition of Babylon)? He certainly offers no other explanation for his use of the word. It's more like he's trying in vain to explain to HER why they should get back together, and in desperation he reaches into the pop/rock canon and pulls out the word that most closely resembles his feelings about what's gone wrong and why, and about how the situation could turn around--and he throws the word at her and us. It's lyrical shorthand borne of helplessness. He can think of no rational reason, or even emotional reason ("let go your heart"), for them to be together, but nonetheless their togetherness must be--and so, in a flash, Faster Pussycat and the Dolls and Boney M and Garveyism and hopefully-not-Steely-Dan-but-maybe-even-they flash through his mind and he spits out the only word that will stand a chance of making her appear on the stairs:


And he hopes she understands.

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