Beethoven and Greene

I’m someone who has always loved hearing and learning stories, and ever since I was young, many of my favorite songs have been those with distinct, unique stories embedded in them. For me, the depth and coherence of a narrative structure can combine beautifully with the emotional and aesthetic intensity of music to create masterpieces of art. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that one of my favorite bands, Twiddle, has many songs that tell vivid stories to the listeners and feature a wide cast of iconic characters.

“Beethoven and Greene,” however, doesn’t have characters of its own, but instead is about stories in general and about how we are each the protagonists of our own life stories. As the song progresses, the lyrics bring the listener through the archetypal hero’s journey, while the structure mirrors a traditionally told story, repeated through generations.

Instead of creating a character of their own for “Beethoven and Greene,” Twiddle instead tells a story about “you.” In doing so, they make the hero’s journey more real and universal for listeners, as something that everyone can experience. This universality is also noticeable in the rather general, almost cliche aspects of adventure laid out in the song: leaving home on a train, a magic incantation, a gate that must be opened, and most centrally, the potion that grants the drinker their true self and best life. The potion, as the central focus of the song, represents everything that we hope to gain from the adventures of our lives: happiness, wisdom, purity, confidence, etc.

Aside from the hero’s journey nature of the lyrics, other elements of “Beethoven and Greene” suggest to me a story being told time and time again, undergoing changes but still suggesting the same universal truth of a quest towards betterment. Listening to the song for the first time, it’s unlikely that the listener will catch all of the details and specifics of the story, but will still be able to recognize its main theme and plot. This is especially true in for the first chorus. It’s dense and complex, and not easily sung along to, but in the first few listens I was still able to pick out “….all your past doubts….wake up and hope….a little sunshine….pick up and go,” where the pace slows down at the end of each line. This is just like when you’re being told a story by someone: many of the details are lost, but certain words, phrases, punchlines are remembered, along with the general theme and message of the story. When you then tell the story to someone else, you’ll likely add your own flair and details of your own, changing the story while keeping some core constant.

The second chorus comes into play here. It’s the easiest part of the lyrics to understand and learn, and thus takes the role of the core of the story. Even it is not immune to being changed, since the melody of the chorus is changed after it is sung once and this original melody is never repeated, but after the lengthy instrumental section, which I take to be a jump forward through time, it is all that remains of the lyrics, as the core of the story is carried into the future.

I could go on, there’s so much to this song, but this post has become a behemoth as is, so I’ll leave the rest for you to discover as you enter Beethoven and Greene!

Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise

“Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise,” to me, is a song about making difficult decisions. I probably think of it that way because this song got me through a very stressful 48-hour decision-making period this past May. I had just put my deposit in at Cornell, but had also just been accepted off of the Williams College waitlist, and had to decide whether to make a U-turn on my decision of where to spend the next four years of my life. I felt “a darkness upon me that’s flooded in light.”

Difficult decisions are “flooded in light” after you’ve thought about them for a while and fleshed out your different options, maybe made pro/con lists, all that good stuff. However, the way forward is still inherently “darkness,” since you still don’t know which choice to make. The many uses of opposites throughout the song (doubt/promise, darkness/light, black/white, day/night) also serve the purpose of reinforcing the feeling of being pulled in different directions. I’m not totally decided on what the “fine print” line means, but I think it’s about how other people try to make your decision for you, giving you their opinion “in the fine print” of their supportive words. The singer is “frightened by those who don’t see it” because that likely means they “who don’t see” the difficult decisions are being controlled by ideology, seeing everything as nails for their hammer and never questioning their convictions, which is quite a frightening thing.

However, for the hardest decisions, you can’t get the answer from anywhere outside of yourself. The Avett Brothers recognize this in the second verse, saying that “nothing is owed, deserved, or expected and your life doesn’t change by the man that’s elected.” There’s no clear outside factor that can make your choice easy for you. However, that verse ends on the note of love, building up to the explosive, triumphant chorus.

“There was a dream and one day I could see it.” Everything becomes clear if you can see your dream. Ultimately, one of your options will best lead to you freeing and living out your dream, and the rest will fall away in light of that choice. “The last of those bad thoughts are finally out,” and your choice aligns with your innermost definition of and wishes for yourself. The impossible choices don’t stop coming, which is why the song ends like it starts, but by seeing your dream in how you’re living, maybe you can lead your Head Full of Doubt down a Road Full of Promise.

Ripple

“Ripple,” by the Grateful Dead, is my favorite song of all time. Listening to it brings me peace and bliss, as I’m lulled by the repeating melody, lush layers of instruments, and sweet, sweet voice of Jerry Garcia. However, it’s also my favorite song to analyze, and the song that I’ve taken the most meaning from. I think I take something new and different from the lyrics every time I hear them! I’m going to write some of my analyses here, but I encourage the reader to give the song a full listen-through or two and see what you can come up with for yourself (lyrics and some analysis here)!

Several Grateful Dead fans have noted in the past that the song presents and builds off of both Western (Judaic/Christian/Islamic) and Eastern (Daoist/Buddhist/Hindu) religion and modes of thought. A prime example is that of the chorus, which is a 6-7-4 haiku, an Eastern form of poetry, which Robert Hunter (the song’s author) uses to express the Eastern concept of phenomena existing without a direct cause (“when there is no pebble tossed”). Additionally, the Christian Psalm 23 is indirectly referenced several times, with “still water” in the chorus and a cup being filled in the third verse.

There are many more fascinating messages and references like these throughout “Ripple,” but I want to move on to my own original take on the song, which revolves around the different views of life taken by Western and Eastern thought. For the most part, the Western canon sees life as a line. We are first born, live out our lives, and then die, moving on to Heaven/Hell/Purgatory/nothing. Most Eastern traditions, however, tend to see life as a circle. Our souls are in a cycle of birth, growth, and death without a beginning or end, but that is possible to escape. One of most beautiful parts of “Ripple,” to me, is the artistic combination of the linear and circular lives in the structure of the song. On the one hand, “Ripple” is the story of a linear life, as someone is born (Jerry starts singing) in a context (the consistent instrumental backdrop) that remains largely the same. This voice meets and joins with others (harmony in the second, fourth, and fifth verses), before dying with the words “take you home” and joining a vast choir of voices in the afterlife. However, the life in “Ripple” is also distinctly circular. Aside from the brief choruses, the song repeats the same melody over and over again, and it feels like this tune could go on forever, looping back on itself as voices join and leave. In this song, life is both a circle and a line, and it is a poignant reminder that many worldviews have value and that life is stranger and more wondrous than we can imagine. That’s my interpretation, at least. Let me know what you come up with!

Themed Music: Birds

I love all these songs for different reasons, but they all mention birds somewhere in them! (if even only in the first, very memorable line: Birds flying high, you know how I feel)

Nina Simone, Feeling Good

Up With the Birds, Luke Christopher (creds to my brother for introducing me to this song on his “contemplation” playlist during the iPod Nano days)

Up With the Birds, Coldplay (I hadn’t heard this song until I googled the above song and this one by Coldplay came up first)

Blackbird, The Beatles (the voice change on the “into the light of a dark black night” — damn, it’s good)

Three Little Birds, Bob Marley (did not know this was the title!)

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