Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Dynamics of Desperation: Tim Buckley's "Sweet Surrender"
Since his untimely death in 1975, Tim Buckley’s status as a cult hero has become established. Through a seemingly never-ending series of re-issues, unearthed live performances, and radio broadcasts, Buckley’s work has been kept in wide circulation. Inevitably, what jumps out first to new listeners is Buckley’s voice, with its’ bell-like clarity and several octave range. By the time “Sweet Surrender” was released, on the 1972 album Greetings from L.A., Buckley’s career had wound in several directions— from folk to avant-jazz. Greetings introduced the heretofore pristine Buckley into the sleaze n’ cheese world of L.A. funk. Buckley’s reaction to this context was an engagement with the expression of bleak desperation— the sense of being a werewolf on the prowl. It was a desperate time for him (commercial fortunes having dwindled) and avowed desperation briefly became his métier. “Sweet Surrender” is the most blatant expression of desperation on Greetings— what makes it unique is that it is the detailed account of an actual (in the sense of being lyrically actualized) relationship. The turbid nature of the sleaze n’ cheese orchestration gives the song a strange, guttural allure, somewhat akin to the attraction we feel for horror movies. It’s not outrageous to think that sleaze n’ cheese could have major high art consonance— Brecht/ Weill (particularly the Threepenny Opera) had a penchant for such things too. What it can engender in the listener is a sense of morbid fascination. Yet the lyrics of “Sweet Surrender” chafe against this— having been written from a deep, dark place, they initiate a battle with the sleaze n’ cheese production. The war is a gruesome one, and neither side wins. But, in terms of pulling out all the stops to engender a reaction from the listener, “Sweet Surrender” is nonpareil in the rock canon.
The sound of guitar which opens the song is stomach-turning; two minor chords, processed by an effects box so that they sound like mud being churned. When the strings kick in for the second verse, the sense of sickliness deepens. It is these choppy strings, with the dive-bomb runs they do, which imparts the better part of the song’s sleaze n’ cheese effect. The song meanders in search of a structure, and never particularly finds one— Buckley exhorts, talks, yelps, and straightforwardly sings, which adds to the air of a misshapen construct. When Buckley does just emote, as on the final bridge, the result is exquisite— it gives the song its’ beauty quotient. The lurch the strings do at the song’s conclusion goes rather beyond “A Day in the Life”— instead of organized cacophony, this is the bottom level of sleaze— when it becomes deadly. None of this would be worth writing about if the result weren’t compelling— the aural equivalent of a train-wreck. Yet the song’s real arsenal is right there in the words. Buckley establishes the situation instantly— “Now you want to know the reason/ why I cheated on you?/ I had to be a hunter again/ this little man/ had to try to make love feel new again.” Buckley drops us in medias res into what could be seen as a soap opera, but is given quirks— a protagonist who has “to be a hunter,” worn out by the grind of a stable relationship. The unconventional detail of the protagonist feeling “little” (macho protocol often dictating that rock protagonists blow themselves up) adds to an impression of unusual candor, which is immediately rebuked by the cheesy strings.
The chorus, lyrically, is an exercise in the grotesque— “this flim-flam lover boy/ found him a flamingo/ and his flamingo/ showed him how to tango/ and when they tango’d/ it’d send their hearts a-flutter…” One irony of this situation is what Buckley’s motivation was in writing this. The songs from Greetings were, he felt, his last chance at commercial viability. But Buckley either misperceived what commercial was in 1972 or his perversity got the better of him. Still, the rest of the lyrics take pains to commit themselves to bare-nerved honesty. The second verse establishes a key detail— the woman in the scenario is cheating too— “now you’re gonna go out/ and get yourself a reputation/ but I’m gonna have to show you/ where to start.” Love devolved into absolute warfare is not as common in rock as might be supposed— “Under My Thumb” is close to this, maybe “Down by the River.” What’s unique about Buckley’s approach is that the threats and recriminations he issues are saturated not only with hatred of his lover and their situation but with self-hatred and an impulse towards self-abasement. The protagonist levels everything, including himself. All that’s left, at the end, is to “surrender to love,” yet there’s no indication of surrender on either side. When mixed into the stomach-turning music, the net result is either, depending on who’s listening, an absolute gross-out or a high water-mark of desperate candor. It’s not surprising that when the protagonist turns the vicious purgative again on himself, he goes to the heart of his own emotional inadequacy— “I’m just too cold, honey/ just too hard to care.” The problem is that the texture of the music belies this— it sounds like warm, boiling mud. He idealizes a version of love that could “heal the mess we made,” without mentioning the desire to stop cheating. So, he resigns himself to the fact that the situation “keeps going round and round/ you hurt me/ then I hurt you again.”
The central irony of the song’s lyrics is this— the protagonist evinces the desire to surrender to love, yet his language suggests that he is, in fact, surrendering to hatred and self-abasement. This is a failed protagonist par excellence, in a way that the protagonist of “Under My Thumb,” who is happy to celebrate rather than abase himself, is not. He is also more honest than Jagger’s protagonist by halves, and in many ways more compelling. In a sense, we may say that the kitschy musical elements are put in place to abase us, so that we join the circle of abasement. Why would we want to do this? Again, a tie could be made to Brecht— specifically, Brechtian alienation. This is the presentation of a protagonist (or character) who repels us, rather than inviting us to identify with him or her. This brings with it its’ own set of complications— if this figure really does want to “surrender to love,” he is not completely a villain. Many of the threads left hanging by the song are musical— as the strings screech into oblivion, the song just sputters out. The whole statement is equivocal, as was Buckley’s attitude towards his own commodity status. Greetings’ failure to sell certainly had something not only to do with Buckley’s perversity but with the uncompromising ethos with which he expressed his contradictions. Buckley’s body of work, as a whole, exudes an aura of something inchoate. There is something about “Sweet Surrender” itself that is inchoate— its’ strange proportions, what is honest versus what is exaggerated. All the same, Buckley seems more interesting, in 2011, than his singer-songwriter contemporaries; they of sentiments and comforting platitudes. Buckley’s sense of fragments beats their sense of wholes. “Sweet Surrender,” ultimately, seems like an experiment; the fusion of disparate and often incompatible elements. It courts and repels simultaneously. Buckley’s gutsiness is specifically American gutsiness— there is some naivete in it. He doesn’t always know where he’s going— he finds out when he gets there. The sacrifice, had he chose a predetermined, commercial path, would have been substantial, and a loss for us.