Notes, Hoaxes, and Jokes: Silkworm's 'Lifestyle' - "Raging Bull"
Blink and you'll miss it. "Raging Bull", Lifestyle's eighth track, is a masterpiece, a mini-symphony, and nothing less than an example of virtuoso songwriting.
"'Raging Bull', I think, is one of the smallest masterpieces of a rock song I've ever heard."
-- Matt Kadane, Couldn't You Wait?
The subject of this week's blog is "Raging Bull", Lifestyle's magical eighth track, and there is no better way to begin the entry than with the above quote from Matt Kadane, captured in the extras to Seth Pomeroy's essential Silkworm documentary Couldn't You Wait?. With a concision typical of his own superlative rock music, Matt gets to the crux of why "Raging Bull" is so special. Not only is it good — and that's an understatement — but it is the scale of bassist Tim Midyett's creation which is so extraordinary. Lasting barely one minute 40 seconds, it is easily the shortest track on Lifestyle, and like a model city carved from a grain of sand, this tiny production contains multitudes.
As might be anticipated from a song called "Raging Bull", its lyrics are angry. More specifically, they're accusatory. Read them in isolation from their musical backing and we are presented with a narrator who explicitly points a finger at the world and is, as he says, "foaming at the mouth". However we have noted elsewhere in our series how important the full context of performance is to Silkworm's words. For example, we saw how when singing the final verse of "Slave Wages", Tim reshuffled the syllables of the lyrics for maximum impact alongside the music, particularly in relation to the playing of drummer Michael Dahlquist. With "Raging Bull" the opening melody is so sweet and compelling, and the main body of the track on which the listener is swept up and away so arresting, that while the choler of the lyrics remains, any harshness is transformed into something else entirely, something good-natured in fact. As we shall see, by the end of the song, for all his complaints and pawing at the ground, our raging bull is quite charming.
The place to start though is perhaps the aforementioned "main body" of the song. Immediately though that phrase is problematic, or possibly just plain inaccurate. "Raging Bull" changes rapidly from moment to moment. It doesn't really have a section which can be definitively pinned as the main material of the song. Let's briefly try to run with the raging bull.
The track begins gently with a nursery rhyme melody on just guitar and voice. At around the 20-second mark the melody (different lyrics) is repeated con somma passione. At around the 30-second mark Michael enters with three proud rat-tat-tat-tat-tats. This signals a shift, but the section is so prominent and memorable that it seems unjust to call it something like a bridge. It preempts the next part of the song where the track reaches its maximum tempo, but vocally Tim comes down on the lyrics so perfectly in this section ("We devolved as a group…") and a band like Silkworm are so irresistible when they all hit at once like this that it doesn't feel subordinate to the rest of the song in any way. It jolts the track in preparation for what is to come. Without wanting to mix our animal imagery, it is like a dog shaking itself to life.
Just prior to the 40-second mark the gate is opened, the song surges forward, and the raging bull charges. This lasts for a mighty 12 or 13 seconds before the band pull at the straps and the track momentarily hangs ("You are a stray") as everything slows. Is this the bridge? Again, no, not really. It connects the previous hard charging section to the beautiful coda, but it doesn't clearly stand outside of either. Ending about 20 seconds later with a gloriously conclusive fill from Michael (the 1:14 mark to be precise— it is completely worth zoning in on), it is as notable as the sections either side of it.
Finally, between the 75- and 100-second marks, our raging bull comes gently to a rest with a mostly instrumental ending. Tim intervenes only to repeat the final line of the last verse ("Maybe a raging bull"). After the breathlessness of what has preceded it, the close is not only exceptionally pretty but calming. The track glides to a repose which is perhaps more satisfying than the ending of any other song on the album.
Our sprint through "Raging Bull" has been frantic and, yes, we have spent quite a lot of it pointing at the stopwatch. This is only because "Raging Bull" covers such a vast expanse of ground in record time that it is impossible not to be dazzled. As a listener it is difficult not to ask, "Did that just happen?!" What is astonishing is that this isn't some Hüsker Dü-ish hardcore dash or a Todd Rundgren-esque medley where snippets of tracks have been run together and don't particularly bear any relation to one another. It seems like "Raging Bull" must be composed of five or six micro-songs which have then been combined to create this intricately machined hybrid so exactly correct is each section in and of itself. It actually feels that if the track were to be split apart, the resulting fragments could provide the basis for a whole new mini-album of songs. Rather than feeling discrete or disconnected though, it is instead the case that each section follows on as a tightly logical extension of the last. "Raging Bull" is like the world's most precisely engineered Rube Goldberg Machine with one strange, scrupulous mechanism flowing without friction into another, and another, and another.
The subject of our narrator's anger, the thing which has turned him into this raging bull, would seem to be music fans. Not you or I, of course, because being the kind of person who owns Silkworm records or someone who would read a 25,000 word blog about Silkworm ultimately sets you apart. No, the subject would seem to be everyone else. In the extras to Couldn't You Wait?Tim reveals his provocation to write the song.
"I happened to be watching MTV one evening when they were showing videos and I just was overwhelmed by this feeling of disgust for what I was seeing on the television… It was one of those experiences of seeing something, I don't even remember what it was, some tip for the top band, and being filled with what probably really was jealousy, but it came off as rage or irritation, and that came out in the song."
With that in mind the "Raging Bull" could only begin one way: "Caught up in the corner / With the swim instructor's daughter / Drifted out of orbit's line again." It is as intriguing and weird and obtuse as anything in all the world of Silkworm. Is it an image from the video Tim saw, the one which lit the touch-paper? Whatever meaning the listener may see, the lines are an exquisite complement to the melody. As noted, the combination has a kind of nursery rhyme feel to it, something naive and earnest. This has a lasting effect and frames how we perceive the narrator throughout the rest of the song, even as our next lines warn that something ferocious is approaching: "On a hot wind / Some kinda musk drifts in."
Our narrator immediately vents at the fan who doesn't get it and would overlook his band for another: "We devolved as a group / You wanted me but now you can't / Have me at all / Kinda slow on the pick-up." It is an echo of "Slave Wages" in a way, with a narrator howling frustration at a lack of recognition for all his exertions: "A little too late / No one knows a thing about a raging bull / I been hard at work / Oh no / No stay of execution / No one knows what I'm about / A raging bull / Foaming at the mouth." These are the first lines where the narrator refers to himself as a raging bull, and in doing so they draw more parallels with "Slave Wages". There the good humour of the narrator shone through. He described his predicament with such wit and skill that the song could never be read as miserable or depressing. Even in woeful circumstances he put on a show of bravura. Similarly with "Raging Bull", by referring to himself as a raging bull and making a display of just how very angry he is, the narrator shows an endearing self-awareness.
Very often songs which rail against the music business can be bitter and not a lot of fun to listen to, and the more explicit they are, the more pronounced this effect can be. Hearing a rock behemoth scoff at the question "Which one's Pink?" is funny approximately one time and then tiresome thereafter. The narrator of "Raging Bull" avoids this pitfall by acknowledging his rancour. There is also a element of humour to the extremity of his description of himself as "foaming at the mouth". It could be read as a knowing comic exaggeration. The same goes for the lines "No one knows a thing about a raging bull" and "No one knows what I'm about." They may be read as implying that he believes he isn't getting his due recognition, but they may also be seen as a warning to the world to watch out: You don't know what's about to hit you! It's a bit like the 'Hold me back, guys!' move which professional baseball and soccer players sometimes do when they're looking to throw down with an opponent, but really they don't want to throw down at all, where, all bluster and screaming and shouting, they storm towards their adversary, slowly, artificially holding themselves back, while waiting and hoping for team mates or officials to intervene before they get to their target. Our narrator's anger is genuine, but he is also aware enough to stand outside of it and comment on it.
The final verse makes reference to Tim's inspiration for the song while taking a swipe at fans of that MTV trash: "You are a stray / Kids on the video / They play for you alone / Something with the sound of a rumbling tone." In this series we have already seen numerous instances of the unique way in which Silkworm often approach their subject matter, whether it's Andy's take on the movie Le Mépris in the song "Contempt" or Tim's reflection on love in "Plain". Again, this is the case with "Raging Bull". Rather than merely spit fire at the terrible band in the video, Tim extends the thought and asks who the hell would like this kind of thing anyway. This irritation then somehow becomes twisted and results in the narrator figuratively transforming into a rampaging bull. Typically though, in the midst of such fury the song ends with eloquence: "Nothing gets you going somehow / What kind of creature will abuse you now / Maybe a raging bull." As noted the final line is repeated during the coda.
In "Raging Bull", the blind solipsism and lack of self-awareness which often sour songs about the music business are rejected for good humour and insight. Anger is as valid a mode of expression as any, and Silkworm pursue it with zeal, but also with distinctive wit and intelligence. It would be wrong to think of the song as oblique. It is simply imaginative. Inspired lyrics coupled with the incredible mini-symphony of the music mark this tiny track as the work of a virtuoso songwriter. Blink and you'll miss it. In contradiction to its size "Raging Bull" is a magnum opus by any standard.