Monday, August 20, 2012

Killing Me Softly: A Guide for Groupies

I watched the Colbert Report the other night when Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips was Colbert’s guest. They discussed whether Coyne had gone into the music business in order to get laid more than he would have otherwise.

This is of course a truism among musicians – at least the male ones. In my own case, I am not certain that during my performing years I  was thinking so much about sex in such bare terms – I hoped men would be more attracted to me if I was a Girl With Guitar, because I didn’t feel attractive otherwise. And in fact, it works in a way, but not a very agreeable one in my experience.

So what is it about musicians that makes them so attractive? Because it’s really not about good looks.  I don’t have a definitive answer, but I think there is a synergy between authenticity and mojo.  Spilling your guts in public is not something many people can pull off – let’s face it, most people are more terrified of performing than they are of spiders (exactly the opposite of me). Yet that’s what we want our musicians to do. And the good ones put out. They do it on the audience’s behalf, expressing what for most people is inexpressible. We project enormous amounts of emotion onto musicians, particularly the front people like lead guitar players and singers - when they spill their guts in a way we can relate to, it’s a blow against all the slings and arrows of living a conventional (which is almost by definition inauthentic) life.

The core of this process is mojo: magic. And of course, to be Freudian about it, mojo is deeply erotic. Now if you’re the musician, even if you are hoping your musicianness will make you more attractive and increase your odds of getting laid, you can still be terrified of being the receptacle for all that projected feeling.

It doesn’t help your career to be intolerant of such projection. Some people are highly tolerant. Like Madonna, for example. She soaks it up like a sponge. Of course, she’s not so much spilling her personal guts, but serving as an avatar (in the old sense of being the embodiment of the divine, not a persona in a game or a favicon).

I  think the most successful performers, at least the ones who don’t burn out and die young, are those who have it in them to be an avatar but maintain good boundaries so that they don’t fall into complete dissolution. You have to have a strong ego to remain standing as other people’s waves of yearning and passion break against you. And you have to tap your own yearning and passion to do your job. The difficulty of balancing the need for normalcy with the thrill of activated mojo is, I suspect, one of the reasons musicians behave so weirdly. Because the gut-spilling and mojo are authentic while they’re going on, but they don’t transfer to life outside performance. You can be the most sensitive person in the world when you’re writing and performing a song about love, but that doesn’t make you good at either intimacy or sex. It’s really hard to understand this – I’ve seen it from both sides now (sorry, Joni) and I still turn into a groupie for a guy with a guitar.

Yet this knife-edge that artists inhabit is essential; art requires authenticity and divinity both. Most artists will wither away if they can’t express themselves and communicate their expression to others, and I believe that artists can have profoundly beneficial effects on individuals and society (with the exception of Ted Nugent). They can inspire social change, and they can help individuals making terrible journeys through the abyss, whether mental or physical. I truly believe the music of the Beatles, Joni Mitchell, and many others have actually preserved my life many times over.

This brings me to the song “Killing Me Softly,” written by Norman Gimbel and Charles Fox (although according to Wikipedia, Lori Lieberman, the first person to record the song, says she had a hand in its composition also). It became a big hit when Roberta Flack recorded it in 1972. I learned it during a phase when I was playing solo in an airport lounge and a Hilton hotel. I thought it was too middle-of-the-road for me really, but I liked the melody a lot, and I thought if I performed it, the patrons of lounges in airports and hotels would probably be inclined to tip.

“Killing Me Softly” is astonishingly robust. There are more than 1000 mp3s of it at, including lots of karaoke, pan pipes and romantic guitar and string versions.  I’ve just listened to snippets of renditions by Perry Como, Anne Murray, the Fugees, Dame Edna, the Band of the Queen’s Regiment, Nat Cross (on the bluntly-titled Music for Sex album), the Bulgarian pop star Yordanka Hristova, and many others. The song can be done in numerous styles, although it nestles into Latin grooves especially easily as evidenced by the Rhythms del Mundo Cuba version, and no matter how badly it’s interpreted, its beautiful melody, riding over a lush chord progression like a little inflatable boat over gentle rapids, comes through unscathed.

But the lyrics wash you up on the painful shore of irony. Pay special attention to the third verse:

I heard he sang a good song
I heard he had a style
And so I came to see him
To listen for a while
And there he was this young boy
A stranger to my eyes

Strumming my pain with his fingers
Singing my life with his words
Killing me softly with his song
Killing me softly with his song
Telling my whole life with his words
Killing me softly with his song

I felt all flushed with fever
Embarrassed by the crowd
I felt he found my letters and
Read each one out loud
I prayed that he would finish
But he just kept right on


He sang as if he knew me
In all my dark despair
And then he looked right through me
As if I wasn‘t there
And he just kept on singing
Singing clear and strong


So groupies beware! (Note to self: Beware!!) What happens on stage should stay there. The best place to keep all those yearnings and urges engendered by the mojo of gut-spilling musicians is in your head – in the Platonic realm of ideal forms. Not on your futon.

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