Monday, April 21, 2008

Everybody's Talkin'

I have a lasting fascination with American music from the 1960s. Many of the marquee songs of the era have become short scriptures for a generation of young folks who wanted change (hey Obama, you think you're so original?) and new values to believe in... Next semester I'll be teaching a short elective where I'll use a great book by Philip Beidler as the textbook - and he uses that phrase "Scriptures for a Generation" as his title, indicating that texts function ritualistically and communally in an orally transmitted culture...

Many such songs are 'auditory icons' in the sense that they are associated with specific filmic images through their use in film soundtracks. Think The Graduate, and hear Simon & Garfunkle's "Mrs. Robinson". Think Harold & Maude, and hear Cat Stevens' "If You Want to Sing Out". Think Midnight Cowboy, and hear Nilsson sing "Everybody's Talkin'"...

But wait a minute. Most Danes who hear "Everybody's Talkin'" these days will be thinking SAS, as in Scandinavian Airlines, because the corporate geeks in advertising have pinned their hopes on lifting the dwindling fortunes of the venerable inter-Scandinavian aviation conglomerate on the charms of this little ditty. The commercials give me vertigo (never a desired effect for an airline) and an acute sense of dislocation (not good either when destinations matter). The malady I am suffering from is space-time compression, a side effect of globalization: any text can nowadays be lifted from its original context and re-injected in a new sphere, worlds and decades from the origin. Mild disorientation usually ensues in individuals who know the history behind the original usage...

The lyrics of the song which make nice sense in the context of the film Midnight Cowboy, detailing the futile dreams of escape of two misfits trying to get out of New York City to soak up some rays in Florida, make somewhat less sense in the commercial, which follows a suited businessman as he wafts through check-in, security, arrival and apparently steps straight off the plane and into a sidewalk eatery in Southern climes... Listen:

Everybody's talking at me.
I don't hear a word they're saying,
Only the echoes of my mind.

People stopping staring,
I can't see their faces,
Only the shadows of their eyes.

I'm going where the sun keeps shining
Thru' the pouring rain,
Going where the weather suits my clothes,
Backing off of the North East wind,
Sailing on summer breeze
And skipping over the ocean like a stone.
Read into a contemporary airport/travel environment the first stanza describes a certain recipe for disaster for the business traveller: acute disorientation, borderline catatonia - you'll never make it to the gate on time... Second stanza: uh-oh, trouble at security, the sunglassed guards have obviously sussed that you feature on every no-flight list known to man... Bridge 1: not exactly the hassle free dream destination depicted in the film, where our business traveller hasn't even packed a cotton-coat, let alone any rain gear... Bridge 2: forgettaboutit - you'll never reach your destination at all - the plane is crash landing on water, Mayday, Mayday...

OK, so the advertising company didn't really pay attention to the lyrics they picked - what they wanted were the feel-good vocals and the sing-along tune. Never mind the queer undertones of the original film, never mind the frustrations and alienation captured in the song's mini-portrait of its dishevelled urban cowboy persona... In the SAS fantasy world we are all wealthy, male professionals jetting across our little uniform globe in safe, sanitized aeroplanes that never have their wheels falling off on landing...

Back to the 60s. Nilsson's versions of the song are in themselves a little strange. Here is the original opening sequence of the film, where soon to be male prostitute, Joe Buck (played by Jon Voight), prepares to get out of Hicksville:

Note the bizarre nasal drone and Roy Orbison falsetto imitation at ca. 2:00 till coda... Now compare with Nilsson's slightly longer hit single version, here recorded for a Beatsploitation Hit-Parade TV-show called Beat Club:

Note the distinctly queer moves Nilsson puts on, attempting a bit of snazzy finger-snapping and hip gyration at ca. 1:00. The foghorn-like moaning comes in the vocal effort already at 1:15 and is redoubled at the coda, where the circular wrist motion also gets a bit out of control... By this time Nilsson was enjoying a mega-hit with the single which had almost transcended the three-Oscar success of the film. Both these versions are cool mementos of an age where music and films like these could enjoy block-buster success.

Nevertheless, there is an even cooler person behind the song "Everybody's Talkin'": the original songwriter, Fred Neil... Compare the Talkin'-light tones with string arrangements of Nilsson's versions to Neil's own stark folk instrumentation, cool guitar solo and deep vocal delivery:

That is a scripture for a generation, folks... Neil was a songwriters' songwriter, having even a master in his own right, Tim Buckley, cover another classic signature song of his ("Dolphins"). For a while in the mid-60s Neil was a powerful presence in the East Coast folk scene, much admired by diverse figures such as David Crosby and John Sebastian of Lovin' Spoonful fame.

Sadly, Neil never made it big as a performer and, after a spell of living in Woodstock, eventually elected to make his own getaway to Florida, quit the music business and slip into obscurity. His life and times are meticulously chronicled at this website. As usual Richie Unterberger has done some of the best musico-cultural archeology on Fred Neil, which can be read in part in this excerpt...

Here is Richie's take on "Everybody's Talkin'":
Fred Neil [the album] is best remembered, however, for the original version of "Everybody's Talkin'." Much slower and more simply arranged than the famous cover by Nilsson, it clearly laid out his wishes to escape the madness of contemporary life -- the city, perhaps, or the music business? -- into a hermetic paradise. (That destination is most likely Southern Florida, where Neil would spend much of his post-1970 life, given the line about going to a place where the sun always shines through rain.)
In 2001 Fred Neil passed away at age 65, after a long battle with skin cancer...

Here is how "Everybody's Talkin'" ends, long after the SAS commercial is over:
I won't let you leave my love behind...


Steen said...

The SAS strategy reminds me of the Philips commercials some five to ten years ago, where they used Beatles' "Getting Better" as a hymn to their excellent electronic devices.

What happened, of course, was that the backing vocals after the chorus "I have to admit it's getting better" was blurred. This was necessary since the vocals are "it can't get no worse".

Similarly to the SAS commercial, the song is transformed into a happy, optimistic song, which is not really the full meaning of the song. Consider the lines after the second chorus:

"I used to be cruel to my woman
I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved"

But then again, it is not just faceless corporations that subvert original meanings into new ones. Springsteen's "Born in the USA" is an example of how audiences took a song critical of US society and turned it into a national anthem, celebrating one's identity as an American.

To most people, American or Danish, "Born in the USA" is an "auditory icon" of the US as a positive manifestation. It seems that the chorus is overdetermined in meaning, while the rest of the lyrics are less significant.

Bent said...

Case in point w. SAS: Since "Everybody's Talkin'" doesn't really have a chorus, the line they wanted as the soundbite equvalent is "I'm going where the sun keeps shining" (major chord!), but they forgot about "through the pouring rain" (minor chord...) Bummer!

And you're right in observing that also fans' intended collaborative icon-work can go bad (case of "Born in the USA"). Leaves artists with little choice but to modify the tone of their own songs, as Dylan famously does by speeding up and shortening sing-along ballads and sneering at signature phrases in his own lyrics...

Steve Johnson said...

I remember seventh grade, when Rhonda Beckler suggested that the song is from the perspective of a corpse awaiting afterlife. That was when I first understood that art had its own afterlife, under the surface of this one. Happily for Neil, he didn't have to wait until death to achieve his.