I’d like to fall asleep to the beat of you breathing, in a room near a truck stop, on a highway somewhere.
The thing I love best about a good photograph is its ability to speak to the whole with just a part. Great pictures give the viewer the outline, the context, the impetus of the action, but most importantly it gives the viewer the chance to fill in the blanks. It puts the power in the hands of the perceiver, which allows said person to create internally, and thus feel the true power of the image. A good photographer sets up a story that we eventually write, one that we can most be moved by.
On the other hand, bad photography, something I personally inflict upon myself, always tries to say too much. It shows the whole, broadly and without personality, without emotion. The beauty of a good picture is in what is strategically absent. It’s in what is unseen. It’s in what is implied. In the pieces the viewer must arrange on his or her own. Bad photography, amongst its other failings, fails mainly because it takes the power of final arrangement away from the viewer.
The power in the line quoted above, in this very powerful song by one of my favorite bands, has a lot shared with a striking photo. This line is as much about what is implied as it is about the words that are actually there. In fact, the things absent, those things assumed, are what I love about John K. Samson’s lyrics, and they’re a perfect example as to why he is so extraordinary.
See, when most lyricist approach the huge subject of love they do what I do when I take a picture; they try to cram the whole thing in the frame. They try to talk about the whole feeling, but often what we the listener are left with are a bunch of lines about looking into someone’s eyes, bad metaphors concerning things celestial, and lofty promises to be there (wherever that is) whenever called. The singers make the easy and tempting mistake of matching hyperbole with itself. But the truth is that the extreme sensation of love actually benefits from a much more humble addressing.
Peter Gabriel and a host of other famous singers have all sung the lines in the chorus of the song, In Your Eyes, which proclaim:
In your eyes / The light the heat / In your eyes / I am complete / In your eyes / I see the doorway to a thousand churches / In your eyes / The resolution to all the fruitless searches
And while that all may sound compelling when accompanied by a catchy melody, in the end, it’s utterly meaningless. Seriously, what the hell does any of that actually mean? Other than churches rhyming with searches, I have no idea why any person’s significant other would be complimented by the comparison to a thousand church doors. Is it to signify marriage? Are they getting married a thousand times? I’m totally lost here. The language here is fluffy and nice and completely without foundation. It’s all cliché, and extremely lazy writing. It all sounds neat on the surface, but finding actual real meaning here would be like trying to sit on a cloud.
But now take the line quoted at the top of this blog. It’s not a grandiose statement about becoming complete, about intense passion or burning or churches, instead, it’s a humble, “I just want to fall asleep next to you, and I don’t care where.” But I’d argue that that exact sentiment has more real actually love in it than all the ocular hyperbole in the world.
I learned from a past RadioLab episode that many animals literally sleep with one eye open. See, sleep makes one incredibly vulnerable to predation, and when one’s job is to simply stay alive, it’s a pretty bad idea to fall asleep on said job. To fight this, many animals have developed the ability to rest one half of the brain while the other have watches out for predators.
While, luckily, most of us don’t necessarily worry about getting eaten alive each time we doze off, I do think there is some truth still about sleep being a vulnerable time for us humans, and I think it says a lot when a person professes a desire to share that time with another. And in this lyric, the desire is not to simply sleep near another, but so close that the rhythmic breathing of the other person is not just audible, but loud enough to lull the other to sleep as well. We’re talking mere inches, if that. The comfort here is found not just in inviting someone into your most vulnerable part of day, but in the solace found in knowing that the other person is already asleep, that he or she feels safe enough to doze off first. It’s in the sharing of vulnerability. Also, this song doesn’t reference sex or lust or passion, meaning that falling asleep next to this person is the desire, rather than it simply being a result of post-coital exhaustion.
In traditional marriage vows there normally are promises made regarding the preservation of the union in spite of less than ideal financial conditions, i.e. for richer orfor poorer. This, of course, is easier said than done, financial bickering being one of the most common sources of strife in any relationship. Many lyricist avoid this difficult subject completely and instead take pride in the fact that their wealth is so tremendous that one wouldn’t even have to worry about money. For example, take the rapper T.I.’s song Whatever You Like. As much as I love T.I., and I do, this song is a perfect example of focusing on the “for richer,” which, when you do, diminishes the extent of one’s actual commitment. It’s basically saying that the relationship is dependent on wealth. If it began with an argument that one should date T.I. because she can have everything, then it should end once everything isn’t provided. When you break it down, in this song it really just sounds like T.I. wants nothing more than a really pricey call girl to stroke his ego, et all.
Now contrast that with Samson’s lyric. There’s no Patron, or jets, or stacks of money, instead, there’s a humble truck stop motel near a highway. It’s those sheets whose cleanliness can never fully be trusted, the constant hum of a window A.C. unit, while outside, passed a more than likely dirty rectangular pool and a cheap diner surrounded by a cracked parking lot, late night commuters in cars and trucks roar by on the highway in a sound that Samson himself perfectly describes as “dopplering.” It’s the opposite of T.I. It’s exactly what follows “for richer.” And it’s really what matters. Because if you remember, the couple is falling asleep there. Right there in the “for poorer.” And we already discussed what it means to sleep, to want to share that with another person. So what the singer is implying is that in spite of less than adequate resources, he would be comfortable enough to simply be in the presence of the other person. That’s his riches. The person is his wealth, and it isn’t dependent on hotel accommodation.
Finally, and this is probably my favorite part of this line, he ends it with a shrug of his shoulders. Where is all this really happening? Somewhere. The location doesn’t matter. What is constant here is the desire to be around the other person and so the scenery is inconsequential. It’s just scenery. This is also where this line is brilliant in its own context, as a line in a song, a song written for an audience. We as listeners can probably all relate to this desire for intimacy with another person, and we all know what a truck stop motel looks like. So up to this point, two-thirds of the way through the line, Samson has us completely with him. Rather than alienate most of us with a specific location, he keeps it vague, somewhere, anywhere really, thus giving each listener the power to set the scene, to make it personal. He, therefore, in this one line, creates a perfect picture. And that, I believe, is where the bulk of the impact of this line really lies. It’s in the songwriter’s ability to let go, to give this very personal emotion away to the listener as a gift, to narrate to a point and then hand over the pen.
About a year ago, after listening to this song for the thousandth time, I recognized this last quality in this line and wrote down in a journal: Be specifically vague! It was a reminder to myself, with a whole album’s worth of lyrics left to write, to focus on creating very specific moments and then giving them away. It turns out to be a lot harder than it looks, and I think I’m going to need a whole lot more practice to get a grasp on it. But it’s something great to strive for I think. Giving a song away is what keeps it alive. It’s why, a decade after its release, I’m still enjoying listening to, and learning from, an enormous song with just a few simple chords.
A knave, a rascal, an eater of broken meats; a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy worsted-stocking knave; a lily-livered, action-taking, whoreson, glass-gazing, superserviceable, finical rogue; one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a bawd in a way of good service, and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pander, and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch; one whom I will beat into clamorous whining if thou deny’st the least syllable of thy addition.
-Earl of Kent in Shakespeare’s King Lear
This is the best insult ever. I mean, how do you respond to a tirade like this? You can’t. You simply have to hang your head in defeat and admit that you just may be a one-trunk-inheriting-slave. Shakespeare was a genius. If you don’t agree, I shall beat you into a clamorous whining.