THE SOUND OF MUSIC
When you’re in your teens the music you hear is also who you are, you find a group of people who like the same thing as you, and together you define your identity. Only I never knew anyone who loved Lloyd Cole as much as me
How beautiful, shiny and big were the lies in 1984. You could trust them, believe them, they had a warranty similar to the one given with a Subaru 1300 DL vehicle. The world had two poles – the northern and southern, the eastern block and the western world, the enlightened world and the third world, and even here in our small country of Israel there was the right wing of the “Biblical Complete State of Israel” and the other camp, who at the time still believed they were left wing.
In music, too, there existed two camps who divided almost equally the 6th grade classes in Tel Aviv, from the snobs of “Bar Kochva” school to the “rowdies” of Balfour. You were either Michael Jackson, or you were David Bowie. This struggle continued throughout the year of 1983, head to head, Billie Jean vs. Modern Love, Beat It vs. China Girl, Thriller vs. Let’s Dance.
I was on the Bowie side. I loved Michael too, but his high-pitched aaah-oooh quite annoyed me. Besides, I was keen on lyrics. I noticed the lyrics a lot earlier before I heard what the drummer or the bassist were playing. Bowie’s lyrics had something odder about them. I bought both tapes, Let’s Dance and Thriller, but the shirt pin I had was only Bowie’s.
When you’re a child and you love a singer or a band, the main part of the love is the wonder. That’s why these loves are so beautiful. Like the song said, “The first cut is the deepest”. The lines that await you in these songs open doors for you. In “Let’s Dance” Bowie has a line that says “Let’s dance under the moon light, the serious moon light”. “The serious moon light”. At age 12 I looked upon this expression just as a Labrador dog would look at a tennis ball – I wanted to catch it, to grasp it. I felt that behind this expression, something was hidden. Something illogical but true. A kind of magic. Magic I started looking for from that moment on.
During one of the last evenings of the 1983-4 school year I watched, with my friend Amnon, the “Ad Pop” show [the local chart show that was shown throughout the 80’s and some of the 90’s – SJD] hosted by Ehud Manor [a very well-known lyricist and radio and TV broadcaster – SJD]. Approaching the end of the show, Manor presented a young British group called “Lloyd Cole and the Commotions”, or as band names were at the time, the band’s name was translated to Hebrew. Judging by the way he was talking about them, it seemed he didn’t hold them in very high regard. He showed three videos of theirs in a row, from their debut album which was called “Rattlesnakes” – they were “Perfect Skin”, “Forest Fire” and the title track. The shine of the writing hit me immediately. I felt it was the real thing.
The next morning I went to “The Record House”. It was the first time something I heard sent me to the record shop so quickly.
On the cover there was a brown-greenish photo of a wooden room, its door slightly open to a crack. The names of the band, the album and the songs were printed in red. Inside, on the wrapping paper of the record, on one side, a picture of the band, and on the other, the credits list. No lyrics. The disappointment was great since there were words I just didn’t understand, fragments of sentences I couldn’t even put together. There were many names that meant nothing to me. I’d sit near the record player with the earphones on my head, moving the needle back and forth, and, like a wireless enthusiast listening to radio broadcasts, slowly try to encrypt the lyrics. A quarter century before the internet, there was no other choice. I considered writing to Polydor, the record company, requesting to receive the lyrics, but I found a different solution.
I approached an English friend of my parents who worked with them in the theatre [Sobol’s parents are well known in the Israeli theatre world, his father a renowned playwright – SJD]. After despairing of understanding the lyrics myself, I started bugging him to listen to the record with me and explain it to me. At last he gave in, and that is, for example, how I came to understand the mumble that was “some say that they odid on Leonard Cohen”. I figured out most of the sentence but didn’t know what “odid” was and I couldn’t find it in any English-Hebrew dictionary. Adrian listened once and twice with me staring at him, strained, and finally he said, “Listen, you little bugger, OD’d means he took an overdose, do you know what an overdose is?” I didn’t know what it was and he shrugged until my father explained what an overdose is, like when you take too many hard drugs at the same time and you die of it.
Some critics accused Lloyd Cole of being pretentious and “namedropping”. But thanks to that namedropping in his songs, which I went on to investigate, I learned many things. For example, Leonard Cohen, who I started listening to only because he was mentioned in “Speed Boat”. I learned about Cosmopolitan magazine because it gave sex advice to the heroine of “Perfect Skin”. I searched relentlessly for Arthur Lee records because the girl from “Are You Ready to be Heartbroken?” listened to him. I saw the film “On the Waterfront” only because the girl from “Rattlesnakes” looked like the film’s star Eve Marie Saint “as she reads Simone de Beauvoir in her American circumstance”.
Rattlesnakes was the first record in my life that I truly listened to through and through, more and more, day after day. I knew it the same way a religious man would know his prayer book, and these really were my prayers, prayers for a world with women lethally beautiful, witty and vulnerable, who meet you in the underground train of a big city, and take you from there to a basement apartment on Charlotte Street or for a ride in an open car through Spain, and all you have to do in return is write them a song. Sometimes just a line. The thing that astounded me the most about Cole, and later with other poets, was the ability to include a world in a line, to find the minimal combination of characters and signs, some kind of code, that holds within the genetic makeup of an entire relationship, or of a day, a woman, a city, a lost love. If you really listen to it, that line transforms into that door, a door into a new world.
In the song “Four Flights Up”, after various little details of life, Lloyd asked his girl, “Must you tell me all your secrets, when it’s hard enough to love you knowing nothing?” Somehow I knew what that girl looks like when she looks in the mirror, where she lives, what car she drives.
THE MISSIONARY APPROACH
Lloyd Cole wrote his first album, as gifted lyricists do early in their writing, with a kind of amusement, a kind of wonder about this toy called “language” they hold in the palm of their hand. Later, in the following albums, it didn’t feel so easy anymore, perhaps too many expectations, too many compliments, alcohol, maybe just life. There aren’t many writers who manage to do what they do seriously without taking themselves too seriously.
When you’re a teenager, who you listen to is a big part of who you are, you find your group of people who love the same thing as you, and together you define your identity. It’s all well and good in theory, but I didn’t know anyone who loved Lloyd Cole as much as I did. I couldn’t really figure out which crowd I belonged to. Looking back I understand that Lloyd himself didn’t really understand where he belonged. After breaking up the band he moved to New York and started releasing solo records. In any case that turned me then into his missionary. I tried to provide him with a small audience made up of people I cared about.
Eventually I managed to figure out which group I belong to. In 1988, when I was 16, I moved to London following one of my dad’s jobs. We lived in South London in a fairly poor neighbourhood, and we were the only Jews in an environment made up of Indians, Jamaicans and lower or working class Englishmen. After three months of silent acclimation at school, I understood I had picked all the wrong subjects (mathematics-related) and that all my potential friends were somewhere else. I decided to audition for a play in the drama class. Despite non-existing acting skills, and probably thanks to my foreign accent, I got the role of a Nazi psychiatrist. This way, as a Nazi psychiatrist, I met my first friend in England. She was a Lloyd Cole fan. After one of the rehearsals, she asked me what kind of music I like, and when among other things I mentioned I love Lloyd Cole, she opened her mouth in surprise and asked me if someone told me to say that to her. When I assured her that was not the case, she decided that the fact that this Middle-East native boy loves the same singer as she does was wondrous enough to make me her friend.
And then the concert came. Cole, who was already living in New York at the time, released his first solo album and arrived to tour Britain. I was listening to other things at the time, Lou Reed’s Berlin dominated the phonograph, next to it The Cure, The Smiths, Nick Cave and the Madchester bands headed by the Stone Roses, Happy Mondays etc. Cole’s new record was received with responses from contempt to apathy, despite a cover in the NME. I, too, was less enthusiastic about him, but I still got two tickets to the “Hammersmith Odeon” show the day they were put out for sale.
IN LIFE SIZE
The show opened with a rather heavy-metal cover of the Beatles’ “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road”. Lloyd had decided then that he was tough. He wore black leather and “pilot sunglasses”, and played with Fred Maher (who was Lou Reed’s drummer for a while) and Robert Quine, the great punk-rock guitarist who passed away three months ago. It was odd seeing in real life the singer I had admired from the age of 12, a somewhat unrealistic feeling. My consciousness divided in two, half of it was swept away with the show, and the other half kept pinching itself and looking on everything from the outside. What was not less odd was the fact that I finally saw “my group”, two thousand other people who knew the lyrics exactly like me, and I found out there’s nothing that identifies us with each other besides the love for those same songs. The songs that were written by this man, that I’d just seen for the first time in life size.
Background and remarks:
Yaheli Sobol is one of Israel’s best known young musicians, releasing albums both as a solo artist and as a member of a band, which he leads as singer and writer. He also occasionally plays lead guitar with other musicians.
Most lyrics appear in the article in original English.
I cannot stress enough how much I identify with this article, even though I’m significantly younger (about 8 years), and have known the internet since I was about 13 and music-loving friends since forever.
Translated by Stevie Davidson [in-text comments marked by “SJD”]
Publication: Shokken Network weekly local newspapers, special holidays issue
Publication date: 06/10/04