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Buddy, Can You Spare a . . . Metaphor?

June 20, 2006

(Note: pulled under threat of lawsuit by some future production company teeming with shifty lawyer-like types.)

My boy is on the verge of feeling his rock oats. After years of my entreating him to bring his drum, piano and vocal skills over to my band, he up and formed his own! Which is what 16 year-olds do, I suppose.

"Later, Dad."


His band just had their second session over at our house. Fresh off nearly cracking the windowpanes with their fuzzed out bass and guitars (and I'll be damned if I'll ever let that happen again!); but how can you say "no" when you see those hyper-stoked kids with grins that won't quit on their faces, flush from those first few empowering moments of "we-can-do-anything-because-we've-done-nothing-and-it's-all-in-front-of-us".

God, how I miss those times!

Practically, what that means is that my stealing him back into the fold to work his chops with his sis and me and our band-on-hold, won't be happening for the next few months, probably years -- by which time I will be so doddering that the point will be moot: who'd want to play with me anyway? I mean, Mick and Sir Paul and B.B. King are still tolerated cause they built up a following the previous 40 years. (And, besides, Mick and B.B. can still make magic tracks).

All of which goes to prove that rockers are allowed to live forever, if they can manage to get born first!

But I guess I'm just letting the scent of my sour grapes out.

So, anyway, back to today's point, which, as I intimated, starts with my boy, the rocker-in-training . . .

Although I guess we won't have much musical give and take for a few years, we still have music between us. Something to chew on together after talk about history projects on the Viet Nam War, and games of "H-O-R-S-E" on the hoop out back, and late night snacks shared over root/beer and tortilla strips reach their inevitable lulls. Thus, for example, there was a recent conversation about metaphors in rock, which came up since we were listening to "Hotel California" as we were chip-dipping. I said:

"you know, that's a metaphor."

And my son said:

"Get outta here. Is not."

And I said "is too" and we went back and forth like the adults we were pretending to be on that one until the guacamole diminished to little flecks of onions stuck to the rim of the bowl. At which point he said: "Dad, what's a metaphor?" But then, giving it a beat, he smiled and said: "just kidding" and asked, instead:

"so, are there any other rock songs that are metaphors?"

And, after offering up the immediate "yes", he asked: "like . . . which ones?" And that got me to thinking. My first inclination was to say: "it is almost of the case of which songs aren't metaphoric?" And then I realized that that was a post -- at least enough paragraphs to get around to asking you, faithful reader, to take a pass at that question -- say, your all time favorite metaphoric rock songs.

And, I suppose, to get more precise about this topic -- you know, introduce a bit more academic rigor and conceptual clarity -- we ought to distinguish between two things:

  1. those songs that are entirely metaphor (like, say, the aforementioned "Hotel California" or else Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit"), and

  2. those songs which simply use metaphor in the course of their story (say, for instance, in "Norwegian Wood" where John confesses that I . . . crawled off to sleep in the bath)

Which is probably the point of the program where we should review. A metaphor, for those of you too lazy to retrieve your high school English Comp classnotes from the cardboard box in the attic, is a figure of speech (or, in the case I'm talking about, a song lyric or else the entire song) in which a word or phrase (or song) denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another. John's sleeping in the bath as a metaphor for his pal-gal's lesbianism or (in an alternative prospect of 180 degrees) John's oblique admission of commiting adultery with his decidely unlesbian pal-gal. "Puff the Magic Dragon" has always been reputed to be a metaphor for drugs -- a claim that (beyond the word "puff") I have never heard anyone convincingly sustain. You want a drug metaphor in song, better to go with Tom Petty's "Last Dance with Mary Jane" or Bob Dylan's lyric from "Just Like a Woman: Queen Mary, she's my friend/yes, I believe I will go see her again....

John's bathtub might actually be less metaphor than allusion, but that is getting rather technical. Still, for those whose thrills come from splitting hairs, there is this: all this likeness stuff between two things should not be confused with a "simile", which is a figure of speech which compares two unlike things via "like" or "as". Something on the order of: "Your smile is as inscrutable as the Mona Lisa's" or (since we just referenced Dylan) how about: You take/fake/make love . . . just like a woman, but you break just like a little girl?

(Okay I gave you the condensed version, but think of this like Cliffs Notes -- and then sit back and appreciate the voila of it all: a simile in our midst!

Speaking of Cliff's Notes, when I was doing a little research for this piece, my search of "Metaphors + Rock" led me to this page which, when I clicked on it (and viewing it with my academic eyes), made a pall drop from my mouth agape. (As in, it raised the dander and piqued the ire. It was sufficient to make the spit and vinegar flow). Here was a website which, for a fee, a lazy (but nonetheless enterprising) student could score pre-written terms papers on any range of (worthlessly unnecessary) topics, including:

  1. Organizational Structure Metaphors (2,213 words; 13 sources; MLA)

  2. Organizational Metaphors (2,750 words; 6 sources; MLA)

  3. Metaphors in the Bible (1,150 words; 2 sources)

  4. Sylvia Plath's "Metaphors" (900 words; 1 source)

As if anyone would care. On the other hand, there was also a paper on "Metaphors of Identity", "Metaphors in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby" as well as the topic that drew my attention in the first place: "Metaphors in Rock". Which, presumably, many do care about.

Reading through my accreting anger ("why can't kids think for themselves!??!"), I learned the following from the rock-paper-(scissors?)'s abstract:

"One of the key things about similes and metaphors in contemporary rock love songs is that, for the most part, they can be interpreted in various and multiple ways. In other words, they contain a strong sense of ambiguity. This allows them to be taken as speaking to each individual listener as if the song were aimed directly at him or her."

Well, how convenient. An intellectual free for all. A smorgasbord of signification. A polymorphous paradise. An orgy of meaning -- all at an ignoramous's command. Since anything's in play, everything is infinitely open and entirely possible. To paraphrase the legendary Mac Rebennack, "Such a life!"

More from the (quasi) educational front. I came across this academic article during my research. If you read it, be forewarned: it's academic -- you know, the kind of thing where they turn a simple problem of how to get the pussycat to chase the ball of string in order to find the mouse nibbling the cheese into a schematic for a nuclear power plant. Still, since it ends up touching on The Beatles, and since we, at PopMatters, have been featuring the Fab Four on our cover this week -- why not?

For those of you hoping for the Cliff Notes version, the author basically covers the evolution of certain key themes in rock and roll. At some point his paper basically becomes hijacked by The Beatles, leading to a deep analysis of their ouevre. He claims that theirs was metaphor-driven and can be divided into five discernible stages, many of which work to send out central messages about social organization and human practice. These stages include:

  1. An explosion of joy

  2. Assailing society's obstacles to spiritual development

  3. The drug-induced, surreal visions of utopia/attempts to mythologize a new worldview that would help direct the counterculture

  4. An acceptance of life in the mainstream/end of the surrealistic dream

  5. Metaphors of an archetypal return

Maybe. Could be a stretch. You know, the pressures of having to say something profound in order to get published.

Nothing like what I engage in here (of course!)

But it's entree enough to purchase admission into the next conversation; the one that occurs here; the one which is: since it can be agreed that there is no famine when it comes to metaphor in song -- since we all can allow that in rock metaphor is rampant -- then perhaps we all have examples to spare. Inclined to weigh in and share?

If so, then what is your favorite rock metaphor? Either in concept or else in lyric line?

Don't be shy. Don't stand still or silent . . .

You know . . . like a rock . . . or an island.

Don't remain fuzzy. Like . . . a hazy shade of winter.

Make a contribution and thus, provide some clarity . . .

Like . . . a bridge over troubled water.

Oh . . . but that's not a metaphor. Such a simple(minded) mistake!

How simile of me.

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