I know it’s blurring the categories but after watching this from SGB I began thinking about lyrics and how important they had been to me for building in inner life when I was a teenager. And some of that was about being a woman, and some of it was about being unhappy and sometimes those two things came together. Song lyrics are a great way of getting poetic shapes inside you, and the music seemed to press pain home so that I knew I was feeling it. (In retrospect, is this like a safer, less actual version of self-harm? I wanted to feel something that would make me feel unhappy. So I listened and listened to certain songs over and over). One of the first lyrics that got me in this way was America, by Paul Simon, which I found on the Bookends album (again, think I’ve got Lorna Tanklovitch to thank for that. Her brother worked in a record shop – in London!) It touched me so much with its soaring loneliness that I would play the last verse over and over in order to bellow along with the words.
“Kathy, I’m lost,” I said, though I knew she was sleeping
“I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why”
Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike
They’ve all come to look for America
At Blackburn House school where I was unhappily spending some of my time, the words seemed to bang around my head as I moved around the corridors. Many years later, driving out of New York in rented car, I saw the New Jersey turnpike sign and all the feelings of hopelessness, lostness, stuckness of that 14 year old girl came pressing back upon me, mixed with the exhilaration of escape because here I was, 30 years later, driving a white Buick onto that very road – having a future. Who’d have imagined that to be possible? And yet something in the song was pressing into me a feeling of – what was it? Dislocation? Unrightness. You see it in someone else’s words and suddenly, you know what it is: ‘I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why.’ That Kathy was asleep, and he loved her but she couldn’t hear him, and yet he still had to say it. That’ was what got me. ‘Kathy, I’m lost, I said, though I knew she was sleeping.’
One day I spent a maths lesson writing ‘I hate fucking Liverpool’ over and over, like lines, in my book. I couldn’t do the work, but there must have been more wrong than that. Miss Pinnington certainly thought so. She asked me to see her the next day, and we sat alone in the sewing room while she tried to find out what it was. I’d forgotten about writing the lines (that’s hard to believe, isn’t it? How could I have forgotten writing the word ‘ fucking’ over and over in my maths book?) But I was surprised – shocked – when she showed me – it looked like the work of a madwoman. I was alarmed at how kind she was to me, because I’d known her only as the impatient tyrant of maths and sewing, my two worst subjects, and because for the first time I saw that how I looked from the outside was very different to how being me felt from the inside. I told her there was nothing the matter, and she told me I could always come and talk to her if there ever was…I never took her up on this offer, and I don’t think any thing else ever followed on from our conversation.
Dear Miss Pinnington,
There were a number of things I couldn’t tell you. I’m sorry. You seemed so naive and unworldly.
Sentences you can’t say in Miss Pinnington’s sewing room:
They were running around the house naked and fighting and drunk and I had to go down and separate them and stop him killing her because he had a knife. And then in the morning she was angry with me for getting the kids up late, and we were all late for school, then I got a detention. I ran away from home and went to my grandparents and stayed for three days until they said I’d have to go back. Mum says I will be made a Ward of Court if I don’t learn to behave myself. She can’t control me. I am out of control. I ran away from home and went to stay in the flat of a girl I knew from theatre workshop. She is a youth worker, and lives above a youth club in Garston. That was a lovely flat. I couldn’t imagine myself living there. Next year she will go to University. I rang the NSPCC to tell them I was worried about a girl in our street but then when I got through to a lady I put the phone down. Mum kept me off school and gave me black bombers and I had to stay at home and clean the flat top to bottom. It was great!!
‘I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why.’
Thank you, Paul Simon, a fourteen year old girl in Liverpool really needed your lyric.
Watched the SGB clip several times……brilliant!
I agree about the important role song lyrics can play in our lives. Over the years the songs I have returned to very many times are those by Janis Ian. So many of her lyrics seem to resonate with me – different songs at different times.
I met her at Salford Quays last year and she is a wonderful, generous woman.
You got me thinking about lyrics that I clung on to as a teenager. I looked up ‘I am a Rock’, also written by Paul Simon, and it was like a punch in the stomach. Thirty years on I can see those words exactly describe the teenager I was. But at the time I thought I just liked them in a vague ‘well, they sound nice’ kind of way. It seems song lyrics can touch areas we have – dangerously – pushed out of sight, and bring a measure of comfort until we are ready to deal with them.
I loved ‘I am a rock’ too but had thought I had better just stick to one Paul Simon reference! I agree about function of lyrics – as if they speak to a place we don’t have normal language to acknowledge… we had a great piece in The Reader mag long ago by Dr Michael Macilwee about his adolescent relation to ‘the Boxer’ – I’ll see if I can track it down and post it on this site…