Metal, metal, metal, metal, metal postcard” — Siouxsie from the Banshees
reading: W.B. Yeats, the Tower
Ozzy Osbourne, Diary of a Madman
Motorhead, Ace of Spades
Metallica: Master of Puppets
movie: This is Spinal Tap
[This is not a history of music column. This column is about lyrics as text, analyzing lyrics for meaning, close reading of album titles, song titles and close reading of lyrics within the microcosm of the album and the broader macrocosm of youth culture in the 1970’s, 80’s and more recent decades.]
No musical analysis, this week. But analysis of the heaviest poet of all time, inventing themes in the tradition of High Modernism that will preoccupy Metalhead lyricists for the rest of time. This is an altered state of consciousness from Neo-Liberalism, Yeats poems, metal lyrics. His images and notions have reverberated across metal texts for a century now.
Metallica’s pre- Black Album main statement is through their music: specifically Lars’ drumming evolves the lengthy songs in builds, swells, in directions with vast scope. Lemmy from Motorhead is a stark realist, concerned with his own temptations and the common outlaw, such as in his song about roadies. Their first venture from 70’s Punk Music to the Goth-Metal that would obsess them in the 90’s, the Siouxsie and the Banshees song quoted in the paratext above is a song about a class reunion invitation. Like Patti Smith, in my column on her I say Ozzy Osbourne has a non-normative lived experience, mentally, coming through in his lyrics: a drunkenness, both chemically, but also in terms of brain capacity. Ozzy is my favorite metalhead lyricist until Mastodon, he is so specific in his detail.
W.B. Yates was drunk on cultish, Celtic mysticism. One of the most complex and influential poet of the early 20th century, the images in Yates’ texts frequently reference this mysticism, a distinctly metal approach to High Modernism.
His book the Tower is my favorite textual unity, containing two of his highest accomplishments, Sailing to Byzantium and Among School Children. But also Leda and the Swan, and the eponymous the Tower, a sprawlingly cultish, while not occult, fantasy. Meaning is usually hidden just around a textual corner, enshrined in vague symbolic mysticism, but when it does arrive, it is epiphany of the Highest Modernism.
Sailing to Byzantium, (pull it up, seriously, so much simpler) the first poem of the series, demands a very close reading. Best to speak him slowly out loud, Yeats. It begins with a country defined by what it is not, “no country for old men.” The young, and several other beings who don’t think much, “all neglect monuments of unageing intellect.” (nice word usage, and spelling of unageing) These lines puts this country in the opposite textual space of intellectualism. The young are “caught in… sensual music.” Two textual spaces are developed in the first stanza, one intellectual, the other musical and sensual, perhaps sexual.
Song is developed in stanza two, “An aged man is but a paltry thing… unless soul clap its [soul itself’s] hands and sing… Nor is there singing school but studying monuments of its own magnificence.” So there must be song in this country, or at least there must be singing. But the only appropriate singing school is studying– studying what? Whose magnificence? Singing School’s magnificence. The old man then replies to his own demands, “and therefore I have sailed the seas and come to the holy city of Byzantium.”
He has left the country which is not for old men, and arrived in a holy city, doesn’t matter which. Byzantium is a mystical symbol of a greatly desired destination, and the third stanza is mostly more of this, saying, “gather me into the artifice of eternity.” Constructions of eternity, false devices of eternity. The fourth stanza yields a desire “to keep a drowsy Emperor awake.”
The first country and Byzantium are read as symbols for styles of poetry in Modernism.
By leaving the city of the young, he studies monuments of poetry, such as Milton, Ovid and John Dryden. It is because he only reads momentous poetry, that he ultimately achieves the holy city, becoming, in his on words after the death of one of his contemporary role models, “the King of Cats”
This is not necessarily an imposed reading, it is internal to the poem, despite being between the lines. The “monuments of unageing intellect” become such poems as Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel, and Milton’s Paradise Lost, poems with hidden, internal– and therefor with authorial intent– meanings and epiphanies only brought out by close reading and strong analysis. Luckily there are centuries of scholarship on all three poets. However, this is not open literature. However, meanings can become too specifically internal, such as with my least favorite poet, Wallace Stevens. This exclusivity of meaning falsely empowers the literati in-the-know, allowing them to press advantage of this reserved knowledge by making you pay their institutions to understand a single poem.
And “the artifices of eternity” does not simply sound super-badass. Reading the poem as about two styles or states of poetry, the artifices of eternity are reserved for those who can “keep a drowsy Emperor awake.” That is flicking metal.
Tune-in in two weeks time for the column, “Garbage gives the Finger (90’s Rock)”, and over the summer for more analysis of the albums mentioned above.