Sunday 3 October 2010

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Sometimes I struggle with words when it comes to writing a post. Not because they abandon me, although that has happened on a fair amount of occasions. No, the reason is, rather, that I tend to complicate things, to overdo them. To use a football analogy, it's the same situation as when a player is one on one with the goalkeeper and kicks the ball as hard as he can, only to rattle the post when a soft ripple into the back of the net would have sufficed. In my case, my Hispanic background is partly responsible for this excess of words. We use lots of subordinate clauses in Spanish, insert explanatory phrases in the middle of a sentence and indulge in annexing adjective after adjective after adjective to a single noun in a case of severe linguistic polygamy/polyandry. In short, I waffle.

Simplicity. That's what I call for sometimes. When I began blogging I wrote as and when it took my fancy, but then I got into a routine. No more than three posts per week, research them well, write a small intro so that I stay on topic and save them as drafts. But sometimes I stare at the screen, words bursting out of its frame and I suddenly think: "It's too much". What is too much, though?

The answer arrived recently. Or rather, it wasn't an answer as such but a thought that occurred to me a few days ago because, really, there's no response to that question. What is too much for you might be too little for another person. If not, ask anyone who's had to hand in a ten-thousand-word essay at university.

On that particular occasion I was driving around London and it was raining very hard. It was nighttime and the wipers were swish-swashing on the windshield. On the car stereo Janis Joplin was singing 'Me & Bobby Mcgee'. And there, right at the beginning, in the first verse, came two lines that made me ponder the simplicity vs complexity dilemma: "Windshield wipers slapping time, I was holding Bobby's hand in mine/We sang every song that driver knew." How uncomplicated, isn't it? And yet I had always overlooked those words. Up to then, if you had asked me, I would have said that the phrase that had always stuck in my mind from that track was "Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose" but on that night I looked beyond the "windshield wipers" of the song and began to see the other drivers'. What came back was a harmony of blades, each dancing its own solo piece, and yet at the same time part of the same rubber choreography. If you've ever driven in the rain at night, especially when it pours down, you will be acquainted with this phenomenon. Stop at a set of traffic lights and you will notice each car's wipers going their own way, moving at their own speed, different from your own pair. After a while, though, you begin to notice certain coordinated movements that make them resemble a chorus line ready to execute a jeté together. Throw in indicators and you'll be watching a West End musical in the comfort of your own car. Swish, swish, blink, blink! One, two, three, four, and... one, two, three, four!

Let me go back to that line: "Windshield wipers slapping time, I was holding Bobby's hand in mine/We sang every song that driver knew." Its beauty lies in its simplicity. How many times have we caught ourselves remembering songs we've sung until we're hoarse in the back of a car? How many times have we held hands with friends, windows rolled down, motorway ahead of us? Sometimes the tracks being played don't even appeal to us that much, but it doesn't matter; we share the same enthusiasm the person behind the wheel has for them because we want to sing every song the driver knows. In just a couple of lines Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster give us the splashing of memories, the rustling of bygone years.

The second example I can think of simplicity trumping complexity is a song by the Argentinian musician Charly García. Called “Los Dinasaurios”, the track deals with the junta years in the late 70s and early 80s in that South American nation. I have seen my fair share of movies, listened to a great deal of songs and attended a few painting/photo exhibitions that focus on this subject. But Charly's melody beats them all because of its straighforwardness. As it happened with 'Me & Bobby Mcgee', there were a handful of verses that caught my attention the first time I heard this melody back in my teenage years. In this case they were: "Los amigos del barrio pueden desaparecer/los cantores de radio pueden desaparecer/los que están en los diarios pueden desaparecer/la persona que amas puede desaparecer/Los que están en el aire pueden desaparecer en el aire/los que están en la calle pueden desaparecer en la calle/los amigos del barrio pueden desaparecer/pero los dinosaurios van a desaparecer." ("my friends from the neighbourhood can disappear/ the singers on the radio can disappear/those in the newspapers can disappear/the person you love can disappear/those in the air can disappear in the air/those on the street can disappear on the street/my friends from the neighbourhood can disappear/but the dinosaurs will disappear"). In the song, the 'dinosaurs' were the military and I don't think I need to explain the 'disappear' bit. We're all acquainted with the 'missing' in Argentina.

But it is the next set of lines that brought home the whole horror of this situation. In 'Los Dinosaurios' Charly also dealt with the systematic rape to which the girlfriends, wives and partners of the 'disappeared' were subjected. Although it was not covered as much as the torture meted out to the anti-junta activists at the time, cases of sexual assault came to the fore after democracy returned to Argentina. To read those lines is to expose yourself to the slow rotting process of the human soul:

"Cuando el mundo tira para abajo yo no quiero estar atado a nada/imaginen a los dinosaurios en la cama/Cuando el mundo tira para abajo yo no quiero estar atado a nada/imaginen a los dinosaurios en la cama." ("When the worlds pulls you down I'd rather have no attachments/imagine the dinosaurs in bed/When the worlds pulls you down I'd rather have no attachments/imagine the dinosaurs in bed"). The intensity of the verse is stressed by the tone of the piano the second time around; it's stronger. So simple a line, yet so visual in context and so far-reaching in range.

I admit that I like waffling occasionally. It's almost a trademark. But sometimes I feel jealous of how certain writers, musicians, photographers and artists can convey the deepest of messages in the briefest way possible. After all, even if you haven't got a car, your windshiel wipers will continue to slap time.

© 2010

Next Post: 'Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts', to be published on Tuesday 5th October at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. There's nothing wrong with a good bit of waffling. And yours is always good. A pleasant way to pass a Sunday. And I like the way you link seemingly disparate subjects so well.

  2. When I was studying English literature at school, I learned something about poetry that I've held to ever since. To say as much as possible with the fewest words - that is poetry.

    Whether it's an essay, a story, a poem, a lyric, or anything else, simplicity is key.


  3. Escribes tan lindo, as tenido una excelente educacion. Tienes que ser tan facinante en persona como en la pagina. Que historias debes contar a tus amigos y familia. Cuidate amigo que de los buenos quedamos poco.

    Tu amiga que no puede ni escribir Espanol.

  4. I have to say, Cuban, that yes, I like your intention here but there is something about blogging that allows one to waffle. And that's OK, for me.
    Great poetry is literature, great songs are timeless, but I like it when someone tries to put their random thoughts down on a blog and lets us see the process of their mind. It's a very human communication medium, I think, considering it's virtual.

    And oh, how I love Janis.

  5. Ah, Cuban, how I relate to every word you said about circuitous vs. simple writing. I struggle with phrases inside phrases inside phrases all the time. Even as we speak, I'm chanting the mantra "KISS" -- Keep It Simple and more Simple, in the hopes of absorbing it into my writing.

    I attribute my wordiness to my mother tongue (which is more passionate, colorful and fuller than English, if I may be so bold), too, and a healthy dose of English classics I grew up digesting.

    But at the end of the day, maybe this occasional convolution of phrase is what makes my writing different from others'. I hope! :-)

    Thanks for a great post!

  6. just recently In came across a post where the author stated she couldn't write short posts, they always ran about 500 words, yet i like to read blogs like these (to me they have essence,meaning)

    i really enjoyed today's post, I am picturing myself sitting behind the wheel and the windshield wipers going swish,swish spat.*smiling*

  7. For myself, I have to pare things down..I cook with less butter, I weigh less than most, I shred my poetry to an essence..excessive words seem showy..but that's me. And yet you have a capacity that I'm grateful for..because I can't do that! That's what it's all about. And you gave us some Janis... Thanks!!

  8. Your post is certainly appropriate for me. I was thinking about blogging, I felt the need to blog and realised that I need readers too. How do I match and fulfill both needs. My needs and I think the readers would like. I thought of how you blog. How discipline you are. Not just with the schedule but with the quality of content and sophistication of your subject and writing style. Talking about envy. I thought of how anonymous and yet very personal you are. I would like to strike that balance.

    Your post made me realise that we are different, singing and dancing different songs but we are all participants of the same stage choreographed by the rain.

    Many thanks Cuban.

  9. Love the new look of your blog and of course its content continues to be its same intelligent and thought-provoking self.

  10. "You could not step twice into the same river; for other waters are ever flowing on to you."--Heraclitus

  11. Many thanks for your kind comments.

    Here's something to spook you out. A day after I finished writing this post, a few weeks ago, I went to work. I had my mp3 on. Janis's "Me & Bobby Mcgee" came first, followed by Charly's "Los Dinosaurios". And it was raining a lot. :-) Luckily I was on foot.

    Greetings from London.



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