Meanwhile, inspired by nothing more literary or intellectually lofty than a mild man-crush on Robert Downey Jr., I recently started making my way through Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s various novels and short stories starring Sherlock Holmes. I was startled to discover that Holmes is a cocaine enthusiast. Here are the opening and closing sentences from the second Sherlock Holmes novel, The Sign of the Four:
Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantelpiece, and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case.
“For me,” said Sherlock Holmes, “there still remains the cocaine-bottle.” And he stretched his long, white hand up for it.
(Incidentally, that opening line is followed by several sentences vividly describing the process of shooting up; Watson’s weary interrogation of his friend soon makes it clear that Holmes is also fond of morphine.)
Then there is the curious case of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5, which begins “All this happened, more or less” and ends, “Poo-tee-weet?” but within which it is claimed by the author that the tale begins, “Listen: Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time.” (This is actually the start of chapter two; the opening chapter is a typically self-conscious Vonnegutian introduction of sorts.)
I just read Nick Hornby’s Juliet, Naked last month, and while its first and final sentences don’t necessarily summarize the entire novel, they serve as an accurate and damning epitaph for the relationship between its two protagonists:
“They had flown from England to Minneapolis to look at a toilet. Dear God.”
L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz offers nothing particularly striking in the way of first-last symmetry, but in studying the recent Signet Classics paperback edition, I was delighted to find that the introduction begins with a quote from the Marin Independent-Journal’s plot summary of the classic Hollywood adaptation: “Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first woman she meets, then teams up with three complete strangers to kill again.”
Murder is as good a place as any to segue from novels to songs, particularly if one intends to begin with a Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds song. (Doubly-particularly if the song appears on an album called Murder Ballads.) In “The Song of Joy”, a vagabond in mourning stands at a stranger’s doorstep and relates his tragic tale in the hopes of procuring shelter for the night:
Have mercy on me, sir, allow me to impose on you.
Are you beckoning me in?
This is an instance, as perhaps Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany might be, of first-last juxtaposition or symmetry having more impact for someone familiar with the work in question than for someone who has yet to experience it; being unfamiliar with the works of John Milton, I never grasped the significance of some passages of “The Song of Joy” until I studied the liner notes and noted that certain passages were italicized. The italicized bits were quotes from Milton, and suddenly, the narrative was turned on its head and what had been merely a sad tale of murder and loss instantly became something far more chilling, to such an extent that “Have mercy on me, sir, allow me to impose on you… Are you beckoning me in?” is a disturbing excerpt in and of itself.
A highlight from Nick Cave’s Henry’s Dream is “John Finn’s Wife”, a beautiful murder ballad with a first-last combination that summarizes not only the full song, but arguably the full Nick Cave catalog:
Well, the night was deep, and the night was dark, and I was at the old dance-hall on the edge of town.
And the flies did hum, and the flies did buzz around poor John Finn, lying dead upon the ground.
Some songs feature lyrics that are arguably improved by the first-last streamlining process. Oingo Boingo finished their career by shortening their name from its original Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo to simply Boingo, and in 1994, they released a final self-titled album, which opened with a track called “Insanity”, which is powerful and creepy and beautiful and strange, but which suffers from a literal-minded and pedantic chorus wherein Elfman feels compelled to counter every lyrical example of insane behavior with a tiresome chant of, well, “Insanity”. Still, there’s something comical about the contrast between the song’s opening and closing lyrics:
I’m so sorry. Please forgive me.
I’d love to see you dead!
Meanwhile, Marty Robbins could have saved himself and his listeners a few minutes by embracing Robert Mailer Anderson’s “Reader’s Digest” philosophy when he penned “The Master’s Call” in 1959:
When I was but a young man, I was wild and full of fire.
I gave my life and soul the night the Savior called my name.
(I get what Robbins is trying to say here, but his choice of words is unintentionally funny; the whole point of the song is that God saved his life during a stampede, so perhaps “I gave my life” isn’t the best way to express his newfound religious dedication.)
An equally succinct summary appears in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer musical, Once More With Feeling; Spike’s moody power ballad says all it needs to say with its first and final lines:
I died so many years ago.
Let me rest in peace.
Or consider Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs”:
Generals gathered in their masses, just like witches at black masses.
Begging mercies for their sins; Satan, laughing, spreads his wings.
Or Judy Garland’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”:
Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high, there’s a land that I heard of once in a lullaby.
If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow, why, oh why can’t I?
My most interesting discovery was an album which features a message that one can only discern by reversing the first-last structure: the latest Alice In Chains album, Black Gives Way to Blue, which is of course the band’s first studio album since 1996, and the first with their new vocalist, William DuVall. I suspected beforehand that the death of original frontman Layne Staley would inform the new album, and I even looked forward to it; Staley remains one of my favorite singers, and I was more than willing to indulge the surviving band members if they opted to use their new album as an opportunity to mourn.
A sense of loss does indeed pervade the album; one need look no further than the title. However, the title also implies a steady progress through the mourning and into some tentative sense of hope, and the album delivers on this theme, as well, albeit not necessarily in a linear sense; Black Gives Way to Blue is at its most powerful when one takes the final line from its closing track, “Black Gives Way to Blue,” and follows it with the opening line from the first track, “All Secrets Known.” I can think of no greater way to end this essay than by sharing these lines with you:
Lay down, black gives way to blue. Lay down, I’ll remember you.
Hope. A new beginning.
Image (partial) found on Polyvore.com