Monday 30 June 2008

Monday Morning Face Off # 2

Death and war today.

Two very different views, the first reminding us that the first, last and most devastating consequence of war is always the fact that people die - and not 'heroically,' as our politicians would want us to believe, but battling bravely against confusion and abject terror. It's useful to be reminded of that, particularly right now, so thanks to Richard Thompson for Dad's Gonna Kill Me. Thompson talked to me at length for I Shot a Man in Reno, about everything from Tupac to the Faerie Queen. Here's an acoustic version of one of his greatest songs.

Or perhaps you'd prefer this simple song of fraternal love, the bonds enduring through childhood innocence to the throes of deadly serious combat? I didn't speak with Rolf Harris for the book, but I kind of wish I had. Some people think Two Little Boys is camp and silly. Maybe it's because I have a brother, but I find it profoundly moving in its evocation of lost innocence - and also a little disturbing. It was one of the first songs of death I recall hearing as a child.

Anyway, click on Comments and let me know which one hits you where it hurts. To me, both these songs in their very different ways manage to convey the deathly horror of the reality of warfare.


Anonymous said...

Two Little boys make me cry.

Anonymous said...

I'm still not sure whether or not it is a good idea to comment on your choice of songs, because frankly I have problems with both. I'll try and state my case, though.

My main objection to "Two Little Boys" is the line "I wonder if we'll remember when we were two little boys" - not only does it, in my opinion, undermine the dramatic structure - the ending that everybody can guess, but that would still be effective, if well-constructed - but it is also quite unlikely to come from an actual "little boy", who I daresay usually have practically no insight into (or interest in) the workings of memory.

This would be a minor quibble, had it not the effect of weighing down the whole thing and making the obvious ominous: the construction overshadows (that is: gets too big for) the message.

My problem with Mr. Thompson's lyric is mainly a formal one, in that it is quite an angry song and also not very believable, at least to me, as a point-of-view narration. It turns the song into what some may consider a powerful statement, but I suspect that the listener's reaction is more likely to be anger or indignation than pity or even a faint sort of terror.

In fact, I do not know a lot of lyrics about war that really convince me beyond a doubt, but if I had to name some I would probably choose Chris White's "Butcher's Tale (Western Front 1914)" as recorded by the Zombies (working in a very odd way, probably because it is so fragmentary) and of course Eric Bogle's "And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda" (best in Shane McGowan's reading as far as I'm concerned).

Apologies for the length and (primarily) negativity of my response. I am looking forward to reading your book, though.

Graeme Thomson said...

Hey syro0,

Please don’t apologise for the length or content of such an interesting response.

With 'Two Little Boys', without wishing to give the song a weight it can’t bear (really, I just like it in a sad sort of way), I have no problem with that heavy, ominous, clumsy quality you describe. We all know what’s coming, but that’s fine, because the song is all about that chilling childhood realisation – which can come at really quite a young age - that we aren’t going to live forever. Which is why I love that line – “I wonder if we’ll remember when we were two little boys” – shoe-horned in and then left looming over the rest of the song, like death itself. And just like the song loomed over me when I first heard it.

Regarding 'Dad’s Gonna Kill Me,' I have to disagree. Anger is, I’d guess, a fairly routine response to being a soldier and so is a more than appropriate feature of the song, even if its polemical side isn’t to your taste. I wouldn’t presume to guess what every listener’s response would be – although anger and indignation are totally legitimate (see Thompson’s comments below) – but for me the song is primarily empathy-building rather than political, rejecting the blanket media image of ‘our brave boys’ and instead trying to pin down the complex and uncomfortable emotions of those facing – and unleashing – death on a daily basis, as well as illustrating the pure random chance that dictates who will live and who will die. In that sense, it transcends the limitations of just being a 'war' song.

It won’t work for everyone, but it’s an important alternative view. Anyway, I’ll leave you with a little of what Richard Thompson says in the book:

“It’s important that people hear their entertainers talking about the Iraq War - and the most devastating consequence of… war is that someone you know has died. To me, the song is a clarification of the war for the audience – it’s saying, this is what [people] say about the war, and this is what the war is really about. It’s clearly two different things. The troops’ response has been pretty positive. The feedback I get is that, yep, this is our situation and this is how we feel about the war. The same thing from veterans. From the families of troops it’s too much to deal with. Families of troops usually hate it, because they have to believe that their sons are out there fighting for a moral cause, for freedom and democracy.”

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your response and also for posting the passage from your book. I'm glad Thompson seems to have done more or less on purpose what I perceive to be in the song ("a clarification of war for the audience" etc).

I am always a little wary of making very direct statements (in a work of art), because they certainly can turn into preachiness quite easily. This is not the case here, but still I would have probably preferred a subtler lyric. Making statements, however, is a big part of the "protest-singer-tradition"; I have to accept that and I hold Mr. Thompson no grudge ;-)

As to your own view, I'm not so sure the song is above all "empathy-building", especially in the later verses. But I do see what you mean.

One more thought: When the troops react positively to the material, I feel it is also (but not only) because they perceive better the bits of reality behind the rhetoric (compare for instance the reaction of the prisoners to Johnny Cash's "San Quentin"). That those "at home" appear to have quite a distorted image of the war, on the other hand, is really a shame. I would not have thought that these days you would need "protest singers" to point such things out.

Graeme Thomson said...

Hi again syro0,

I’ve never heard Richard Thompson described as a “protest singer”, which is a terribly limited and limiting definition – he comes from the folk tradition, and as such will see his role as a songwriter partly as trying to humanise and bring “closer” certain distant events, but mainly to prompt those listening to ask some searching questions of themselves.

What he’s trying to in this song is break down the huge, inscrutable abstract of War in order to allow the listener to see and feel the day-to-day reality of a human life hanging in the balance – and for what purpose? Hence “empathy-building.”

So I disagree that it comes dangerously close to being a preachy, political song. Aside from the lines about the “Fox evening news” (which is an obvious dig, admittedly) and the closing reference to “double-speak”, there is no rhetoric. The rest is just a very clear and unwavering description of the reality of life as a serving soldier, a whole world away from noble speechifying in London and Washington. It’s a view that’s rarely expressed, and the fact that many troops react positively to the song is a sure sign that it’s scratching a little deeper, saying something a little truer, than the average trite anti-war song (I’m not sure that, say, “Give Peace A Chance” would say much to the average G.I.). So maybe we should listen?

But I take your point about subtlety. Tom Waits’ “Day After Tomorrow” is an equally devastating insight into the mind of a soldier, but works its magic a little less obviously. But then again, sometimes the obvious just needs to be said. Not everything has to work purely on a kind of impressionistic level.

Oh and, without wishing to go off-topic, don’t all of us who aren’t there have a “distorted” view of the war, in one way or another? I’m not sure from which source you get an entirely un-distorted view (or if such a thing exists), but please share! I'm always glad to hear anyone - be they "protest singers" or otherwise - articulating a clear view.

Anonymous said...

Dear Graeme,
The thing about discussions in the commentary sections of blogs is that it's hard to clarify without taking up too much space, so let me just say that I didn't intend to use the word "protest singer" as an all-encompassing epithet for Richard Thompson (hence the quotation marks), but if you write a "protest song", you're a "protest singer" to some extent.
I think there is more rhetoric to the song than the two instances you mention. Especially the chorus. However, there probably is, and irritatingly so, less of it than in the average news report.

As for the cruelty of war as a personal experience and the rather impersonal decisions of the officers back home, I always thought that libraries of books on past wars had started to communicate some of the atrociousness... Since it appears not to be like that, and the compassionate voices are scarce, I gladly let everybody who wants to state his opinion do that, but as far as art is concerned I ultimately reserve the right to find the result unsuccessful. Unfortunately, this is the case here.

Whether the obvious has to be stated is not for me to decide, but there is an audience for the music, and it would be foolish for me to insist on some absolute judgment (far be that from me in the first place).

To compare the song to "Give Peace A Chance" is of course not quite fair. Whether or not it is inferior to "Dad's Gonna Kill Me" is an idle question, and the lyrics are far from being in the same category.

Ultimately, I am not sure whether it is a good thing for a song to attempt explaining things (because we need much more space for that); the real dilemma, I guess, is that there is too little real information to put polemical views in the proper perspective.

It's always difficult to argue against art with a positive moral purpose, and I guess on that account I shall never be quite convincing. But as art, for me the song does not fulfill anything of what I would normally expect. So I cannot possibly just say that it's alright. I hope you understand that.

That said, I really enjoyed the discussion so far.

Anonymous said...

Richard Thompson is a genius.

'Two Little Boys' is a silly kids's song.

Not much to argue about really