Let's Not Talk About Bombs: X's Marriage Songs


Jan 1 2008, 7h04

Previously blogged elsewhere, but this belongs on last.fm too.

I agree with Paul McCartney. There is nothing wrong with a silly love song, a perfectly useful thing to have around. A love song amplifies the feeling when you are in love and sweetly intensifies the ache when you aren’t and want to be. That can be true no matter whether the song is actually good (I'll Be Your Mirror, The Way You Look Tonight) or syrupy dreck (Endless Love, Faithfully). Of course, those are subjective opinions and your mileage may differ. However, in a functional sense outside of any aesthetic judgements, a love song can be considered successful by how well it arouses those kinds of feelings.

Most love songs, good and bad, share two things in common: a lack of specificity, and a focus on only the positive side. Again I will echo Sir Paul: there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that, given the function the silly love song is designed and expected to perform. The benefit of bland universality is that listeners can more easily mentally and emotionally inscribe their own specific details and personalize the song. But bland lyrics are also boring to consider. They are heartfelt perhaps, and (at best) very good at conveying strong emotions, but the words rarely rise above the level of the slogan. At worst, bland love songs are too slick and too manipulative, and the cheap cliches produce (in some listeners) the opposite of the intended effect. Instead of being swept up in the strong emotions of “true love,” we are annoyed or even revulsed by the trite manipulation.

That’s because most of us know that love and marriage aren't like that. Yes, there are perfect moments, when everything is working, and we obviously have plenty of songs that valorize those moments. After all, it is pretty to think so. But the process of sustaining those moments beyond the first intense blush of love, when everything seems easy, is hard and sometimes dirty work. Furthermore, the perfect marriage (if such a beast exists outside of Tin Pan Alley, Stepford, and other fairy tale locations) serves only to illustrate Tolstoy’s dictum about happy families.

John Doe and Exene Cervenka, the (formerly) married songwriters and founders of X, had a famously tumultuous relationship that they used as material for their songs. I don’t mean to suggest that X’s songs are necessarily a perfectly accurate representation of what went on in their marriage, and it’s not important that they are. However, X lyrics impress me with their portrayal of a couple truly in love but ambivalent about marriage, wanting to be together but unwilling to relinquish the personal liberties of being single. It is a marriage beset by infidelity, alcohol problems, mutual suspicion, and self-doubt. In other words, damned interesting.

The memorable refrain of Because I Do asks and answers, “What kind of fool am I? / I am the married kind.” Here, marriage creates a mortal shift in identity resulting in a loss of self, an ontological change from alive to dead: “I am a black and white ghost...the ghost of all my dreams.” The single and singular original identity has been erased by the marriage, symbolized by the “black and invisible dress” the bride wears. The new identity of death carries with it a willful self-destructive indolence (“At night I get drunk and fly around / In the day I dream and lay around”) focused on attempts to shape a new self based on the husband’s preferences (“I drink and smoke your brand”). These efforts are of course literally self-defeating. Frustrated, the wife is “forever searching for someone new,” which refers on a surface level to a search for someone other than the husband to make the bride feel like herself again, but underlying the suggestion of infidelity is the desire to recover the lost self, or more accurately to establish a new whole self within the marriage. The “someone new”is the person that the bride cannot find within herself, leading her to conclude that she is “no good inside.” Being suffused with guilt and self-loathing is no way to make a marriage work, but characteristic of X songs, the lyric also reveals a desperate desire to try, to somehow save the relationship.

In John Doe and Exene’s lyrics, not all the anger and fear is internalized. Much of it is directed at the spouse, as in How I (Learned My Lesson), in which one partner blames the other for emotional unavailability. One person takes all of the emotional risks (“In front of the congregation / I stood up and called your name”) while the other treats the marriage like a business relationship (“when I walked out you just shook my hand”). However, the main theme of the song is that there is no lesson, or that at best it can be recognized but not learned, since the chorus’s insistent call-and-response “how I (how I) how I learned my lesson” is always followed with “but I didn’t / I kept on trying / I didn’t listen, I looked up to you.” What is left is passive-aggressive warfare:

“I call you on the phone
But you tell me you’re not home.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
So I never want to see you again.
I'm wrecking my kitchen carefully
But I'm keeping your dinner warm.”

The humor of these lines deflects some of the pain and gives a nod to punk nihilism, but clearly, as in “Because I Do,” this person cares, enough to “[keep] on trying.”

Although many of these marriage songs are written from a nominally female perspective, the complicated emotions they illuminate are gender-interchangeable, a feeling reinforced by the fact that almost all X songs are at least in part harmony duets between Exene and John Doe. Their harmonies are famously unique, full-throated yet folky and minor-key, exemplifying the band’s straddle of country and punk and reinforcing the sense of brokenness and uncertainty that pervades the lyrics. For example, the almost shouted chorus to When Our Love Passed Out on the Couch:

“I hate it
I love you
I hate that I
Need to know what you do.”

Evident here are the warring and passionate impulses of desire for control over one’s spouse versus the uncomfortable awareness of utter selfishness out of which such a desire could manifest. The song posits an uneasy and precarious balance between love and unhealthy obsession, which itself is evidence of love! That kind of complexity and granular emotional truth is rare in any genre of pop song.

If it is impossible or at least rare to find a perfect marriage, it is also rare to find a marriage where everything is broken. To what degree these songs represent the truth of John Doe and Exene’s relationship, I do not know, but “Some Other Time” perhaps provides some context for how they were able to stay together for so long. Exene begins the song with the appeal “Let’s not talk about bombs / Or the brain impulses of severed limbs,” graphic metaphors for the ugly arguments they indulge in. While recognizing that arguments are part of marriage, Some Other Time declares that arguments must sometimes be set aside. The chorus imposes limits on discord, and admits that being right is not always necessary or even desirable:

“It’s very bad luck to draw the line
On the night before the world ends.
We can draw the line
Some other time.”

The implication is that if the arguments continue one more night, the marriage will be over, and that possibility is not worth one more argument; in fact, a divorce would feel apocalyptic. Exene sings that she “dreams of you between nightmares and wars” and implores her partner to “take me for a ride / Drink and drive down to the L.A. riverbed.” “Some Other Time” is X’s silly love song, although it positions itself in an anti-romantic punk context: the L.A. riverbed is no moonlit beach or candlelight dinner. But then, how jarring would a cliche like a moonlit beach be in a song like this, for a band like this? X doesn’t do pop cliches. And of course, for this couple any resolution or truce is liable to be temporary or fleeting, as Exene promises in the last verse, “I’ll make no mistakes / And I’ll behave.” The fact that she has to say so is a playful hint that danger still lurks, and that if not tonight, some other time that line will be drawn once more.