#31songs (14): A song you used to put on a mixtape
‘… And Stones’, by The Blue Aeroplanes, from Swagger
Around 1991-92, I used to love to start mixtapes with Michelle-Shocked’s ‘When I grow up I want to be an old woman’, from her Short Sharp Shocked album, and then follow it with ‘. . . And Stones.’ Although ‘When I grow up’ is an altogether more laid-back piece, it’s got an insistent rhythm that seems to lay the ground for ‘. . . And Stones’; it made a great prologue to a mixtape, with The Blue Aeroplanes then taking it up a notch.
Musically what I love in this the balance between the very tight groove of the drums, bass, and echoing guitars, and on the other hand, the wild, overdriven lead guitar, notes that stretch off in all directions, chords bent on the tremolo-arm, sounding sometimes desperate, almost strangled. The neat side of the music has several precedents in the Blue Aeroplanes music, with ‘Etiquette’ the one that comes to mind first of all, but there are other precedents in ‘Ups‘ from the Tolerance LP, and in the Art Objects’ ‘Hard Objects.’ However, the combination with the raw, overdriven guitar is new with this song, and it complements something in the lyrics. The key to the lyrics, the basic scenario of the song, is there in the first two lines: it’s about someone meeting an ex-lover, and being caught in a confusion of identity in which she is simultaneously the person she used to be, and the person she now is. ‘Hey you in that dress’ isn’t a phrase likely to be used in speaking to someone you’re familiar with; indeed it could be the language of street harassment. I guess the point is that the ‘long ex’ is simultaneously the desirable unfamiliar woman and the familiar one.
The song works towards a climax in which the lovers are seemingly reconciled, but in a kind of simulacrum of the real relationship. The imperatives in the last verse suggest that the speaker is like the film director of the scene (‘smile, and hold your head back’); think of T. S. Eliot’s ‘La Figlia che piange’ (‘Weave, weave the sunlight in your hair’). The ‘altogether’ now might seem strange, as the verse still seems to be addressed to a single person (smile and throw your head — not heads — back), but if the addressee is simultaneously her old self and her present self, then this verse is the point in which they come together, or seem to. But the payoff line, ‘throw your arms around whoever you think it is’ indicates that the speaker knows — knows bitterly — this is all fantasy, and that he is just as much her projection as she is his. It’s great too that the music comes to an end around that line, as if its dynamism and up-beat mood were all part of the illusion that has just been punctured.
What are the stones of the title? In the context of ex-lovers slipping in little blames, mutual recriminations, I can’t help wondering if they’re the biblical stones of the episode of the woman ‘taken in adultery’: let he who is without sin among you cast the first stone. Granted, the bible doesn’t seem an important source for Gerard Langley in other songs (we’re not dealing with Bono here …), but it’s a sufficiently well known phrase that I guess most atheists in Britain know it. (Did I pick it up at C of E primary school, or would adultery and stoning to death have been off limits there? Perhaps in RE lessons in the first few years at secondary?) In the second mention (‘send flattering dreams / send love send stones send structures’), the stones seem to be more straightforwardly offensive weapons, something to undercut the dreams and the love that the addressee might send.
Hey you in that dress
met up as long-ex-.
that nervousness now much shared
and I wondered as we worked
business to slip in little blames
about miles apart
styles apart and stones
Lovers uptown we went uptown
there were lovers uptown we went uptown
So we were close
close on the one hand
remembered on the other
but how we got too close in that mood
how I walked to your town
it was always someone else’s
it was never neat or sparse
there were never clues in there like ours
Lovers all around we went all around
there were lovers all around we went all around
I can say that for you
but don’t repeat it, don’t even think it
we’re going backwards in division
cross everyone else
give me a description
of what’s joint in this town
describe an arc* of your own
Smaller than thought
wayward in intention
not as wicked as people say
send me a letter with clues
send flattering dreams
send love send stones send structures
Love is uptown we went uptown
there were lovers uptown we went uptown.
say my name and hi!
smile and hold your head back
close your eyes and take as read
close your eyes then throw your arms around
whoever you think it is.
*Not in the printed lyrics. Presumably ‘arc’, with ‘describe’ intended in its mathematical sense, and not an ‘ark’ as in Noah’s ark. (Or might it be ‘art’?)