I watched ‘The Lives of Others’ on Friday night, after years of hearing about how brilliant it is. And brilliant it was, an engaging drama by any measure but also raising complex issues of morality and personal responsibility (so it’s no surprise that it resonated with me.)
The scene which most struck me, however, was not dramatic or concerned with BIG questions of good and evil. Instead it featured a character sat at a piano playing a piece called “Sonata for a Good Man”. Clearly this has a symbolic importance within the film yet it was the character’s words which moved me:
Can anyone who has heard this music – I mean really heard it – still be a bad person?
A silly thought, perhaps (some interesting thoughts on it here), yet the line hit me like a truck because it perfectly externalised something I have often felt while listening to certain artists and songs. Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits are perfect examples. Their music is so humanistic; so bursting with empathy and what can only be described as heart yet disarmingly lacking the ostentatious egotism which we associate with popular music. Because of this listening to it is a jarring experience. It removes me from myself and places me as part of a greater whole. It takes me to a place where confronting and acknowledging your worst traits and impulses is no weakness; where accepting the inevitability of your flaws is a quiet, sincere privilege. When I listen to them, and to others with whom it comes to me like a surprise gift on some grey Wednesday, I feel connected to something better than myself and I feel that I can almost touch it within me. Like the character in ‘The Lives of Others’, then, I have been so moved and humbled by the beauty of what these artists have revealed (both to me and within me) that I can’t imagine anyone who has been similarly touched being a ‘bad person’.
But but, a never-ending cascade of buts. Concepts of ‘good people’ and ‘bad people’ are endlessly problematic, while feeling the emotions described above inevitably suggests you identify yourself as belonging more to the former group. This seems to ridicule and defile the humility which the music inspires. It is a horrible post-modern disease that we are self-aware enough to second-guess after the fact the profound moments of beauty we experience. Yet ultimately I feel at ease with that. In one of his most famous songs Cohen sings ‘There is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in’. However it makes me sound, I feel enormously blessed to be so enormously affected by this music, to have cracks which allow its light inside. It affects my whole life, my entire being and when you meet other people who have ‘really heard it’ you can tell, because they have been irrevocably altered too. It’s for this reason, this knowledge of the unfathomable possibilities inherent within pop music, that I have so little patience for those who treat it as junk to be distorted and disrespected for profit. I worship at the ‘tower of song’ and it pierces through my clouds. As Cohen sings in another song: ‘Even damnation is poisoned with rainbows’.
The other album, Bone Machine by Tom Waits, was anything but tame. I listened to Earth Died Screaming open-mouthed, trying to reconcile that deranged, animal howl and the tool-shed clattering in the background with what I understood to be music. I totally failed to get it
That reminds me so much of my first listen to David Bowie’s ‘1.Outside’, my first real introduction to the wealth of opportunities that lay in the music world beyond chart pop. That album led to so much, including my own initial investigations of Tom Waits.