Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Beeswing: On Not Liking A Popular Song By A Favorite Artist


When I posted the second part of my review of Richard Thompson's oeuvre, there was some discussion on FB about whether the lady love of the singer of "Beeswing" was a junkie, as I described her, or a drunkard, with most of the commenters preferring the latter. Basically, I don't care whether her white horse/White Horse was Keith Richards' one favorite intoxicant or Keith Richards' other favorite intoxicant. Either way, I don't really like the song. Yes, it is pretty, but that is true of many of Thompson's songs. My problem is that it is, to borrow from Manny Farber's intentionally non-categorical categorization of art, his most white elephantish song.

In Farber's famous essay, one of the sins of white elephant art is its insistence on stuffing the canvas with meaning and thus robbing it of any organic life of its own.  "Beeswing," starting with its title, tries to cram significance into every verse but essentially devolves into an audience-pandering cliché. Its melody is intentionally designed to sound like an old English folk song, which is a trick that Thompson achieves to much better effect with his ever-popular "1952 Vincent Black Lightning," a song that, as I have written elsewhere, Thompson surely despises now. Anyway, the first verse of "Beeswing" goes:

I was nineteen when I came to town, they called it the Summer of Love
They were burning babies, burning flags. The hawks against the doves
I took a job in the steamie down on Cauldrum Street
And I fell in love with a laundry girl who was working next to me

There are a couple of moments that are interesting here, mostly related to the jargon. Burning babies? Steamie? I assume the former is a reference to Vietnam. The latter is Scottish slang for a wash-house. But it's the manic pixie girl love story that Thompson's after here.

Oh she was a rare thing, fine as a bee's wing
So fine a breath of wind might blow her away
She was a lost child, oh she was running wild
She said "As long as there's no price on love, I'll stay.
And you wouldn't want me any other way"

The bee's wing analogy is sharp, but not so sharp as to justify the missing apostrophe in the title. With the missing apostrophe, the title "Beeswing" sounds as if it means to suggest a second interpretation of "bee swing," but the term is meaningless for this song. The only bee is in the analogy to this girl (who is both physically and mentally delicate, I assume?) and the song doesn't swing. "Al Bowlly's In Heaven" swings, but "Beeswing" has neither the propulsion nor the rhythm. As a name for Thompson's publication company, though, Beeswing works well, but it feels shoe-horned in here. The line about the breath of wind is fine, neither great nor lousy. The "lost child/running wild" line, though, is Bon Jovi-worthy, and her demands for free love seem very specific in a "Me and Bobby McGee" way to the boomer audience to whom this song is clearly meant to appeal. This sentiment and the way that it is worded wouldn't be out of place in a song by Donovan or Cat Stevens, which is to say that it is somewhat beneath Mr. Thompson's usual standards.

In the next verse, we have:

Brown hair zig-zag around her face and a look of half-surprise
Like a fox caught in the headlights, there was animal in her eyes
She said "Young man, oh can't you see I'm not the factory kind
If you don't take me out of here I'll surely lose my mind"

Now this is up to Thompson's usual lyrical panache, at least in the first two lines. Farber's other category of art (and these were not meant to be conclusive, by the by, in that Farber describes them as two categories without closing the system to further categories) was termite art, by which he meant that the art was so alive and unfettered with portent that it eats it own frame. Those first two lines, with their immediacy and specificity that calls to a quality that is difficult to name but easy to visualize, are excellent examples of termite art. The second two lines only push along the plot, though.

We busked around the market towns and picked fruit down in Kent
And we could tinker lamps and pots and knives wherever we went
And I said that we might settle down, get a few acres dug
Fire burning in the hearth and babies on the rug
She said "Oh man, you foolish man, it surely sounds like hell.
You might be lord of half the world, you'll not own me as well"

But we're back with the white elephant stuff right away. Thompson's singer and his manic pixie lady become abstract people meant to flatter the hippie nostalgia of the audience. They're living by their wits off the land! He wants to settle down, but she's too free, man! She even specifically ties her hippie dude to white male privilege! I mean, even the reference to Kent is more of a placeholder to make a rhyme than anything particular to the town of Kent. While there's nothing specifically wrong with going abstract in a song to make the people seem more relatable to the audience, in this case it feeds the grand overarching narrative.

We was camping down the Gower one time, the work was pretty good
She thought we shouldn't wait for the frost and I thought maybe we should
We was drinking more in those days and tempers reached a pitch
And like a fool I let her run with the rambling itch
Oh the last I heard she's sleeping rough back on the Derby beat
White Horse in her hip pocket and a wolfhound at her feet
And they say she even married once, a man named Romany Brown
But even a gypsy caravan was too much settling down
And they say her flower is faded now, hard weather and hard booze
But maybe that's just the price you pay for the chains you refuse

This is ostensibly more her story than his, but she isn't real in it. She's a flibbertigibbet, a manic lady who ditches her hippie man over an argument about migrant labor, who married a gypsy (which is more Gregg Allman than the usually literate Richard Thompson), and who has now become an ugly homeless lady. But, as the chorus reminds us, she was this other special thing. And the singer, by being her hippie man for a time who could see her for the special thing she was, is the element of the song who is more real. Her post-singer history is condensed into four lines.

There's an element of the song that is meant to be feminist to some degree, as the singer clearly finds her demand for free love and free agency to be two of her aspects that make her special to him. But the song itself judges her harshly for these very things in the last two verses. Her independence and strongheadedness leave her homeless and drunk (or strung out on heroin, which is a drug that many users can actually put in their hip pocket before it is heated into liquid and put in a syringe, but whatever, this isn't the point) and that's the price she pays for being free, says the song. The suggestion is that if she'd consented to the hippie singer's domestic proposal, she wouldn't be drunk and homeless.

Consider "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" as an alternate. Like "Beeswing," it is written as a modern take on an old English folk song, but unlike "Beeswing," it tells a specific story about specific people with specific traits and it doesn't try to make them particularly likable or universal, but instead hangs the story on a powerful emotion and a weirdly specific metaphor for freedom. People like the song because it eats its own framing device.

"Beeswing," instead, idolizes a manic pixie love interest, judges her harshly for abandoning the protagonist, and flatters the audience with silly hippie nostalgia that most of the audience probably never experienced firsthand, but nevertheless knew from the movies and music of the time. It attempts to create a universal feeling out of a clichéd story, and the central metaphor is ultimately crushed by the weight of its trappings. It is a white elephant. You can hang it on your wall if you like, but it seems cynical to me.


Steve Rudd 7:55 PM, September 29, 2013  

Kent isn't a town, it's a county

Hayden Childs 8:00 PM, September 29, 2013  

I posted your message, Steve. I used to get a lot of trolls on new posts, so I locked them down.

radiotone 7:50 PM, December 19, 2015  

Nice post. I have never understood how Thompson could run so dramatically hot and cold, issuing several albums where almost every song is golden, and issuing albums like Mirror Blue and You? Me? Us? where it feels like he just can't connect the bat with the ball to save his life. I was at the height of my initial infatuation with his work when Mirror Blue came out...I believe it was the first record of his I knew of before it was released. I can still relive that initial sense of disappointment when I put it on my stereo and listened a couple of times through.

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