I’ve been listening to David Bowie’s final album, Black Star, which was released on his sixty-ninth birthday, two days before he died. My son gave it to me as a birthday present just four days later – he’d already had it on order for me, little knowing it would be Bowie’s last ever album. I played it for a while but because I am such a fan of Bowie, it actually became too poignant, there were so many lines in the lyrics which seemed to foretell his own demise. Recently, however I’ve been playing it again and I know not everyone agrees, but I think it’s his best album.
As I was listening there were so many references which resonated with me and I began to think about the artist and the audience. I’m obviously not comparing myself to the genius of Bowie, but the same thing applies… I might have a very clear idea of what I mean by what I write, allusions and references might seem obvious – but I am not my own reader – I don’t know what others will be reminded of or what significance they might read in my words.
In one of my recent talks about writing, I read a passage I had written trying to imagine how my great grandparents might have met. To me it is such a puzzle how a middle class basket-maker’s daughter could have not only met the very wealthy import export agent, a Tasmanian Jew whose family moved in the highest social circles in the 1870’s and 80’s but became his love. I will never know how they met – but they did meet and they fell in love and they had five children, although they never married. In the passage I’d written I mentioned the sort of circumstances when they might have come across each other, and researched to find what concerts were on in London and what art exhibitions were open, for example. Afterwards I was, I confess, a little stung when someone remarked it was a ‘Mills and Boon’ story which might distract from the truth.
I had thought I had presented a mystery, my critic had understood it as a prelude to a romance and a rather soppy one at that! I had an inner rueful smile because of course, I can’t dictate how an audience hears or reads what I create. One of my favourite songs by my favourite singer, Raul Malo is ‘Call Me When You Get to Heaven’. This is something I wrote a little while ago on meaning – intended and accidental:
I was discussing the meaning of a lyric from a song by Raul Malo with a fellow fan. The song is ‘Call Me When You Get To Heaven’ and it is extremely powerful and dramatic, almost operatic; we both agreed that it was a tremendous piece of music with an interesting lyric open to different interpretation. I understood it to be the story of two people who love each other but for whatever reason cannot be together in this life time, maybe they are married to other people, maybe they have family commitments, or are living in different countries, but whatever their situation they can never be together. I may have understood it in this way because that is exactly the situation of two characters in my novel ‘Night Vision’. At the same time I wondered if ‘heaven’ might not be meant literally, as in when they die they go to heaven, but metaphorical, if they are ever free to be together then they will be ‘in heaven’.
My friend had a very different opinion; she thought the song was an intention to commit suicide! The way the lyric worked, the way it was orchestrated with Raul’s voice gradually fading away, the stronger ‘angelic’ voices driving the song, she thought it told a very different story. I was intrigued and astonished by this, and now every time I listen to it, I can’t help but remember what she said. However, she also talked to Raul about it, asked him whether she was right, and he was amazed, he had never thought of this at all… which just shows, as a writer you never know how your reader (or listener) is going to understand or interpret your work.
Here is that song:
…and here is a very interesting site which explores the meanings of lyrics, in this case David Bowie’s ‘Black Star’ album: