Scary songs

Oct 24th, 2009 | By | Category: Pop thinking

Watching Stevie Nicks sing Rhiannon on a 1976 recording, an old insecurity resurfaced: the sense that there was a sophisticated and streetwise world out there that was forever beyond the understanding of a hickey kid from nowhere.  The insecurity even got a name a few years ago, in our house, it became called ‘Midnight Train to Georgia Syndrome’.

The great soul singer, Gladys Knight sang Midnight Train to Georgia in 1973, it made it to No 1 in the US charts. It told of a man who had gone to Los Angeles in search of fame and fortune, but his dreams hadn’t come true and he was returning to the rural life of the Deep South from which he had come. The opening lines of the song go like this:

L.A. proved too much for the man
So he’s leavin’ the life he’s come to know
He said he’s goin’ back to find what’s left of his world
The world he left behind not so long ago
He’s leavin’ on that midnight train to Georgia
Said he’s goin’ back to find the simpler place and time.

Stevie Nicks became emblematic of a world that was too much for a teenager who struggled to understand the culture beyond his native West Country.  In a year dropped out of college, a Fleetwood Mac album that has long since disappeared was played again and again on an old mono record player left by housemates who had gone to India.  The side on which Rhiannon appeared must have been nearly worn away by the heavy stylus’ repeated circuits of the vinyl.  It wasn’t even the lyrics, the song could have been sung in a foreign language and it would have made no difference, it was the sound of the guitars and Nicks’ voice that combined to become eerily haunting.

Haunting things are a problem, they defy articulation, they defy definition.  If it was possible to explain why certain things evoked certain thoughts, then they would lose their power.  The opening bars of the song hit the pit of the stomach; in the way that some anthems can make the hairs on the back of one’s neck stand on end, so some songs seem to have a physical quality about them.

Perhaps an analyst would suggest some deep unresolved problem, not that one would talk to a doctor about 1970s music, but there was a sudden impulse to find Gladys Knight, to escape whatever dark shadows there are in the winding corridors of the subconscious.

Maybe it would be better to go to the toilets when they do that song at the concert tonight.

Nostalgia is not always good for you.

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