Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Peach, Plum, Pear

I was reading a blog written by a young, literate and outspoken Philadelphian last night, and discovered a fascinating writer/performer, Joanna Newsom, and her song, "Peach, Plum, Pear." (For those who take pains to avoid clicking links containing strong language, here is a direct link to the YouTube video). "lef"'s blog is, as most compelling blogs are, a bright and wide window into another person's world, and she doesn't pull her punches expressing herself).

At first I wasn’t sure if it might be a joke video. She’s pixie-ish, earnest and playing the harp, with let’s just say an unusual singing voice. But within 30 seconds I got that she was for real, and had something compelling going on. She does things with that harp I didn’t think were possible, the words were striking and she was deeply committed to her performance and her music.

I looked up the lyrics on songmeanings.net to get a better sense of them, and they were intriguing, the sort of collage lyric that fascinates me when it’s done right. There were all sorts of interpretations going on, but I noticed that most people tried to “figure it out” from the beginning of the song, in a linear way.

But it struck me that the title was barely used in the song. There’s no chorus, no refrain, there’s just a continuous stream of thought, culminating in the title. And that is never an accident. The title is the conclusion, the meaning and saving it until the very end is a tell that it is the keystone to the song.

It’s obvious the song is about shyness, and self-doubt, some relationship gone wrong or questioned, and some of the songmeanings posters circled around the fruits as metaphors for a woman’s self-image. And I think that’s exactly right, though it’s the declension itself that the song is about. A young woman is often described as a “peach,” new and bright, with smatterings of “peach fuzz” designating youth; a “plum” is a great prize, something special, a woman in the full, ripe bloom; and as women age, and gravity takes over, the phrase “pear-shaped” comes into play.

So those three little words, all fruits, all beginning with ‘p,’ are a concise progression. Soft and downy youth, ripe and mature womanhood, body-changing age. Or “golden turned to gray” as the song says. Peach, plum, pear.

And from that idea the rest of the song unravels (or ravels). It ties into the grocery store at the beginning, and brings together all the insecurities spoken of, in many ways, during the song. The song “makes sense” – the best of these songs, impenetrable at first, becomes wonderful to walk in after a little reflection. And I’m in love with the worlds of meaning distilled in those three fruits.

As a writer, I try to intuit another writer’s process, how s/he got from one thought to another. I can almost imagine her in the fruit section of a grocery store having this ‘pear-shaped’ thought, making the connection in her mind, calculating the phrase and reflecting on her life, her changing body, and imagining the start of a relationship, right there, where she was standing. It’s the sort of crystallized thought we try to put in our notebooks when it happens, the thought that becomes the greater song, and the thought that a day later, hours later, you won’t remember if it’s not written.

I’m going to look up more of Joanna Newsom's work, and see what else she’s written for me.

Monday, December 15, 2008

One dead Frenchman can't be wrong

During my first ever trip to Paris, I took a quiet solo hour to walk through the Pantheon near where we were staying. It was a little breathtaking to be close enough to Emile Zola’s tomb to tap it.

Zola was the flavor of the month, with a series of retrospective displays about his life and career. I knew about the Dreyfus case, and his heroic stand in public, but only a little about his writing. He was a naturalist, and made it his mission to advocate for art that showed life as it was, not enobled or impressionistic, but flat out telling the straight truth. I didn’t realize he had written a 20-novel “series” that followed one family. I figured I owed him something and bought “The Masterpiece” to read.

This is his novel about art, and the artistic impulse. Zola was friends with Cezanne and many other artists. All the characters in the book are based in part on real people (though many are amalgams of several people). It is the familiar and gritty story of a starving artist and friends, living in garrets and attics, creating art and arguing about its meaning, trying to get their pictures recognized by the establishment, and setting up their own salons in revolt. (Cezanne read the book, returned it without comment, and never spoke to Zola again)

All the characters compromise over time, selling themselves out, selling themselves short, selling their souls in the pursuits we all follow as we age, fame, money, security. Only Claude, the main character, remains obsessed with pure art, and it destroys him. The writer, Sandoz (based on Zola) finds the balance between writing what he believes in and making a living.

I should say that The Masterpiece is not a terribly fun read, but it’s rich in detail about Paris life of all sorts, and has a realistic view of human nature – which isn’t always pleasant. And the sex scenes were pretty frank for a pre-1900 book (tastefully described, but no panning to the curtains blowing, or dissolving into points of ellipses).

The passage that struck me the most was an older artist, once successful, telling Claude and a friend how awful it was to achieve success. That the real joy was the striving, the climbing, the rising – and while success gave one satisfaction for a while, it gave way to doubt and anxiety. Staying on top was so much harder, so much worse, then getting there. Would he ever again produce a work like the one that made his reputation? Was it a fluke? He couldn’t experiment now, too much was expected of him, he couldn’t paint just *anything*

I’ve been going through a dry spell in my own writing, spending time putting together words that have been requested, or trying to write what might ‘sell’ to another artist or composer. And I’ve been concentrating this year to learning the lay of the land, music business-wise, and have not been playing as much as working. I’ve looked over some of the really good lyrics I’ve written before, and wondered whether I need to drop back and just write things I like, not because I think they’ll be successful, but because I like them – and not care whether anyone else does.

I did have a good helping of success this year, but I’m afraid it’s frozen me for a bit. I don’t want to wind up like the artists in The Masterpiece. Here’s to some more inventive writing in 2009…..