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Awkward Ages

For a while now I’ve been thinking about prophecy, counterfactuals, and time out of joint in twentieth-century adolescence. I’ve been searching under a lot of different rocks: Henry James’s 1890s novels about awkward adolescents; Cranky young Stephen Dedalus’ search for the perfect epiphany; Colin MacInnes’s sublime teenager-as-consumer-and-consumed novel, Absolute Beginners; the film oeuvre of John Cusack; Daniel Clowes’ ravishing, mournful Ghost World.  Here, I have been patiently listening and attempting to uncover what I see as one of the defining features of twentieth and twenty-first century youth: a desire to either escape from, or freeze the time you are in—ways to make personal time (and your historical moment) stand still or disappear.

I suspect on some level it is these odd and heavily-cathected relationships to teenage time which slots us into our generation, baby. Adolescent culture is what places and shapes us collectively. My adolescence certainly placed and shaped me—there’s nothing I started listening to in my 30s or 40s that makes me feel more at home in myself than a single glimpse of the MTV ‘80s moonwalk logo, or the first bar of ‘Love Action’ by the Human League, or, from another era, but still my song, ergo my time, Bob Dylan singing ‘You’ve got a lot of nerve…’ at the beginning of ‘Positively Fourth Street’.

Hearing it for the “last” time? Inconceivable.

We are what we listen to because of the weird and contradictory ways music filters through and accretes within our lives. On the one hand a song is a (non-fattening) Proustian reminder of an exact point in time (one note and you’re back in the bar, or the car, or your junior high school bedroom with the stupid rainbow wallpaper). On the other hand a song is a blast of the now, burning like a hard gem-like flame, taking perhaps 3 minutes 40 seconds out of your current, driven occupations.  A great pop song can be a little memory time bomb—explosive, loaded with early versions of you, but also endlessly able to be repeated in the future, never fully finished. What would it feel like if you suddenly thought, “This may be the last time I will ever hear Roxy Music’s ‘Dance Away’?” Inconceivable.

“I was twenty-one years when I wrote this song, I’m twenty-two now but I won’t be for long” is, as you may know, the first line of Billy Bragg’s “A New England.” The song that follows is brilliant and poignant and hilarious about the sadnesses of growing up and losing one’s illusions (“I put you on a pedestal, they put you on the pill”). It asks searching moral and ethical questions (“I saw two shooting stars last night/I wished on them, but they were only satellites/Is it wrong to wish on space hardware?/ I wish, I wish, I wish you cared.”) It is as catchy as hell, although unlike most of Bragg’s revolutionary oeuvre, surprisingly, maybe even parodically, politically quietist (“I don’t want to change the world”—really, Billy? Are you sure?) It’s arguably his best known song, and his version remains many times better than the also excellent one by Kirsty MacColl. These are all just facts, people.

But the first line is nigglingly great in ways that beg for a more sustained analysis of its temporality: “I was twenty-one years when I wrote this song, I’m twenty-two now but I won’t be for long.” When exactly is the song being written? If the songwriter was twenty one when writing the song, then logically he can’t be twenty-two in the “now” which is also the moment of song-writing, but if he’s twenty-two “now” then how could he have also been twenty-one when writing it? You see? It’s a quandary, that makes the line all about the experience of time slipping away. But it also seems to be about the way a song gets repeated, at different times of your life. You heard the song at twenty-one, at twenty-two, at thirty-two, at forty-six, and will continue to go on hearing it ad infinitum. Although we usually imagine, possibly romantically, that a song has an origin story, that it is written pretty much at one point in time, this song that describes its own origin story simultaneously deconstructs it.

fairly forgettable, with one transcendent line

The other day I found out the line wasn’t originally written when Billy Bragg was 21 or 22; in fact, it wasn’t written by Billy Bragg at all. Bragg was actually quoting Paul Simon’s “Leaves that are Green” from 1965, a fairly forgettable Simon and Garfunkel number with one transcendent line, that Bragg snatched and transformed into an even better song, just like artists are supposed to do (See T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land, etc). It does add another pleasurable layer of irony though, that when Billy Bragg first wrote/sang “I was 21 years…” he was also both channelling Simon’s earlier experience of watching his youth slip away, and resurrecting it. I like that kind of thing. Maybe, a little sadly, that’s why I’m trying to write an academic monograph instead of playing in a rock and roll band.

The Pretenders’ song “Middle of the Road” came out in 1984, and my high school posse and I changed the words “I’m not the cat I used to be/I’ve got a kid/I’m thirty-three, baby” to reflect our lives, “I’m not the kid I used to be/I’ve got a cat/I’m seventeen, baby.”
It worked; it made us happy, we were living in the same time with Chrissie Hynde, where we wanted to be.  Like Simon, like Bragg, we were inhabiting the alternately mournful and celebratory temporality of every pop song, the inevitable slipping away of the listener (and singer’s) always already lost youth; the ability to return to it via the experience of the song itself, and via the experience of pop music that remains your past, your present, your future.


Pam Thurschwell is just a wave, not the water.

August 1, 2012 Postscript–eds

Pam did something genius: she sent Billy Bragg a link to this piece via his Facebook page. And…he responded! Here is their (avid!) exchange: 

Pam Thurschwell
Am too embarrassed to put this on your wall, but I wrote this blog entry about ‘A New England’ and I wanted to send it to you, just in case you ever read anything here. Thank you, with much love from a long time fan, Pam

17 hours ago Billy Bragg

I’m so glad you got the Paul Simon connection, because as I was reading your thoughts on the ‘twenty-one years’ line, I was thinking OMG, that is exactly what I was trying to do when quoting Simon – set off a little memory timebomb for myself and the odd listener who got the reference.

But you spotted that too didn’t you. Very clever. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


48 minutes ago Pam Thurschwell
Dear Billy,

Thank you for responding! You made my, I’d say day, but it’s really year. At least, and the people at the Avidly website too. I’ve had Talking to the Taxman on my ipod all day, and am just grinning. Would you mind if I copied your response to print on their site or on a facebook wall? No problem if not. Thanks again! Pam

PS: Do you know the scene in Annie Hall when Woody Allen is in line at the cinema and he pulls Marshall McLuhan out of nowhere to tell the obnoxious guy in front of him whose been spouting his theories that he really doesn’t know what he’s talking about? I feel a little like I pulled you out of nowhere to say ‘yup, you’re right’. It’s a nerdy academic’s dream scenario.

9 minutes ago Billy Bragg
By all means post my comment. The whole thing is a bit McLuhanesque

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  1. also, Pam, I’m super interested in this question, and particularly interested in how childhood and adolescence work together with music, somehow. Like, John Cusack up there: i was just a kid when that movie came out, but it’s totally “my song,” too. I think there’s something happening not only with being a teenager, but also about being a kid and imagining yourself as a teenager or an adult: like, listening to a particular kind of music helps conjure the kind of “adult” you imagine you will be. Is that why Bob Dylan can write your song, and mine, even though he represents neither of our times? Peter Coviello, do you have thoughts here?

  2. My experience is the opposite–not expectancy but a sense of belatedness. This could be the angst of the adolescent Girl Out of Time, but spending my teen years listening to Dylan, Bruce, Neil Young, Otis Redding made me feel that all feelings had already been felt, and it was my lot to try to re-feel them, belatedly.

    • I think I was more with Hester here. At a certain point in junior high I spent most of my waking hours wondering why I hadn’t been a mod chick in the 60s following the Who around from gig to gig. But I also think Sarah M is totally right– belatedness and expectancy are just two sides of the same coin.

  3. Springsteen’s mournful, almost grieving 1988 live version of “Born to Run,” as he was facing down 40. Everything about it says, “I’m not that guy any more, and I miss him. And I’m not sure if I ever found if love was wild or if love was real.”

    • Me too, Sarah. (On Subterranean Homesick Blues, not Dickens). Though I think I took the song to be as social realism. It wasn’t till years later that I could handle a song like “Don’t Think Twice”–or rather, that I thought I’d had enough experience to sing along to something that mature.

      • I love ‘Don’t think Twice’ immensely (and love the way in which Pete C loves it too) but I’ve never thought of it as mature– rather as the bitter, vicious, hilarious Dylan of ‘Positively Fourth Street’ trying to sound mature — ‘You just kind of wasted my precious time’? Unbelievably beautiful music– fuck you lyrics. Actually there’s something kind of fascinating about what different people experience as ‘mature’ music at different times of their lives here, as well, and what that word means.

        • But then again, at 14 and 15 I also spent a lot of time imagining I could have had enough (or indeed any) love affairs that ended really badly that would allow me to feel the vituperative and witty ire that Bob Dylan or Elvis Costello felt. So yes, listening to pop music was predicting a version of sophisticated, miserable maturity. As Pete, put it so well above: ‘Beautiful and intricate heartbreak, and cool articulacy about it’

          • The “precious time” lyric continues to be meaningful to me, I must say. “we never did too much talking anyway.”

          • I should read further down the thread before posting. My last note–which got placed at the end of this thread–was written after I read Pam’s about not thinking the Dylan of “Don’t Think Twice” was really mature. So, in reply to Pam’s “but then again”: Yes, exactly. ……and I too was thinking about Elvic C as being similarly brilliant at this kind of lyric. Cf. the song “I Want You,” for instance; perhaps the most terrifying love song ever written. Or “After the Fall,”–has anyone else ever written a pop song about trying to revive a relationship after an affair has been discovered and ended? I’ve experienced those songs, too, as the kind of thing you’re talking about in your wonderful piece: moments of present intensity combined with timebombs–whether they’re bombs that explode the past into the present moment or bombs that seem to bring an imagined future into the now.

        • Maybe I matured slowly, but I didn’t have enough romantic experiences to appreciate such witty fuck you lyrics till my twenties. And continued to need them now and then all through my thirties. And am only now thinking about how essential–in an almost Jamesian way–the “just kind of” and “precious” are in that line, even if they may seem excessive and extraneous.

  4. I inhabited Another Side of Bob Dylan–Spanish Harlem Incident especially. Live with this for a piece:
    Gypsy gal, the hands of Harlem
    Cannot hold you to its heat
    Your temperature’s too hot for taming
    Your flaming feet burn up the street
    I am homeless, come and take me
    Into reach of your rattling drums
    Let me know, babe, about my fortune
    Down along my restless palms

    Gypsy gal, you got me swallowed
    I have fallen far beneath
    Your pearly eyes, so fast an’ slashing
    An’ your flashing diamond teeth
    The night is pitch black, come an’ make my
    Pale face fit into place, ah, please!
    Let me know, babe, I’m nearly drowning
    If it’s you my lifelines trace

    I been wond’rin’ all about me
    Ever since I seen you there
    On the cliffs of your wildcat charms I’m riding
    I know I’m ’round you but I don’t know where
    You have slayed me, you have made me
    I got to laugh halfways off my heels
    I got to know, babe, will you surround me?
    So I can tell if I’m really real

  5. this song that describes its own origin story simultaneously deconstructs it

    Strongly recommended: Randy Newman’s “My Life Is Good”, which is both a repeated story told originally to the singer’s son’s kindergarten teacher, but also originally composed (as described within) by “a little brown girl my wife and I picked up in Mexico.” not otherwise on topic.

    • And also a great, hilarious song, and totally about why adulthood is a) impossible and b) really, really annoying. Also isn’t that the one where he says Bruce says to him ‘Rand, I’m tired, would you like to be the boss for a while?’

  6. Those Paul Simon/Billy Bragg sentences are an example of a macro within a song. The song is “I’m [substitute current age] now…”, like inserting an address into a form letter or running a macro within a spreadsheet. That’s rather anachronistic for a 1965 song, I suppose, but the underlying logic is the same. Any other songs like this? You’d have expected from an overtly computer oriented singer or group, maybe Kratwerk or Buggles?


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