Does art imitate life, or life art?
In days of Covid-19, when the sight of Piccadilly Circus derelict at 3pm could easily be mistaken for 3am midsummer in Murmansk with the sun already up (or more’s the point, having never actually gone down, situated as it is above the Arctic Circle), you know the face of the planet is a strange and beautiful – if deeply troubled – place in need of accounting for. To do that, what better way than to trove through the annals of music to find lyrics that somehow chime with our topsy-turvy vision of Twenty-Twenty.
How pop music anticipated the short upside of the long lockdown.
Two classic numbers spring to mind as expressions of a world both blighted by the giant bovver boot of human success, and lifted from the dark shadow of its crushing conquest. To know them, we first need to know their context (both allude strongly to making/unmaking the world in our own human image) plus the order in which they arrived on the scene.
The first song imagines paradise lost to human development and is really an ironic take on how when somewhere magical is discovered by the few it is soon descended upon by the many until that magic melts away before the axe, the pick, the shovel and the steamroller. Let’s face up, before the current pandemic, paradise was being lost at a rate of knots. Virgin lands were being deflowered faster than their chastity could stand. But this trend had a precedent. This was all laid out with depressing familiarity in the imagery conjured up in Joni Mitchell’s 1970 masterpiece, Big Yellow Taxi. She saw the tide changing even back then. Joni must’ve read Rachel Carson’s 1962 groundbreaker, Silent Spring. She, among the enlightened few, flocked to Laurel Canyon, in the hills outside L.A., when it was relatively untouched. By 1970 her lyrics were prescient enough to foreshadow an era when the faraway magic tree was starting to get laden with nest builders. In short, when the visionary few woke up to us killing the goose that laid the golden egg.
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
‘Til it’s gone
They paved paradise
Put up a parking lot.
This was 1970. By then California’s redwoods had taken about as much pummelling as they could without going extinct in their native habitat. Federal protection would soon ensue to safeguard the remaining 5% of coastal redwoods left in the wild. Things were by no means great, ecologically-speaking. But the world contained far fewer people than today, and far more biodiversity in still unchecked corners of the globe. Joni saw the writing on the wall. For her, it was going to be ugly, but not without the delicious tang of irony.
They took all the trees
Put them in a tree museum
And they charged all the people
A dollar and a half to see ’em.
The rapid human (& by extension commercial) development of Southern California, and in particular Laurel Canyon, was cause for concern, even then. It was in every sense yet another paradise in the process of being lost. You didn’t have to go back to Milton in the 1600’s to realise this. Nor even to the loss of Eden in the Old Testament. In fact, it was happening all around her and her hippie acolytes. So much so that she saw fit to pen the words to one of the great songs of popular music.
Hey, farmer, farmer
Put away the DDT now
Give me spots on my apples
But leave me the birds and the bees.
The birds needed their trees, but the trees were being shipped to the museum. And the bees needed the flowers to pollinate, but the flowers were sprayed with deadly insecticide. And so, the modern narrative was written. The context was nature’s loss for human gain, albeit temporary. The story of us was bittersweet. Our rampaging success came at a cost to everything that was hitherto worth living for. The garden of Eden was once again imperilled, and didn’t Joni express it every bit as well as a biblical prophet.
The second classic number from 1988, Talking Heads’ (Nothing but) Flowers, also laments loss – yes, those buckled blades of grass under the giant bovver boot of human progress that Joni decries – but this time in a different way. Human development for Joni amounted to stealing the pristine from under her nose as Laurel Canyon fills up with infrastructure that follows in the wake of other dream-seekers like herself. Where she accuses her fellow pioneers of stripping away at the fabric of pure nature in their onrush to exist in a state untouched by civilisation (in other words, by radical actions involving having to degrade nature so they could live it, which defeats the whole point of conservation), (Nothing But) Flowers laments the loss of what we brought to the world by changing it from natural to synthetic. The lyrics deliver a shot from the bows that, contrary to the selfish act of taking from nature to become more natural, mother nature (triggered by events untold in the Talking Heads song) has now reclaimed all things natural from her wayward child. His message is clear: we didn’t gain anything in losing our hold on the world. Roads without cars might well feel like a pleasant dream when cars on roads are all that is. But when all the cars are gone and the road is uprooted? Is that not just as lamentable as a world sans les animaux? Beware what you wish for is a sentiment that rattles through each verse.
From the age of the dinosaurs
Cars have run on gasoline
Where, where have they gone?
Now, it’s nothing but flowers.
Whereas Joni’s brand new parking lot paved paradise, Talking Heads’ frontman David Byrne sings,
Once there were parking lots
Now it’s a peaceful oasis.
His parking lot has become overgrown in the absence of cars by the creeping dominion of natural regrowth. We have, in essence, gone full circle. However, this oasis is not all it is cracked up to be. Byrne soon tires of this state of nature, dreaming instead of,
Candy bars, and chocolate chip cookies.
One would be forgiven for thinking that where
…There was a factory
Now there are mountains and rivers…
can only be good. But no. Byrne proves to be no such primitivist. He wants his Dairy Queen, Honky Tonk and 7-Eleven back. Joni saw real estate supplanting the wild fields and trees, a town sprung up where once there were flowers. Byrne envisions the opposite.
This used to be real estate
Now it’s only fields and trees
Where, where is the town?
Now, it’s nothing but flowers.
Disabusing us of this idyllic state of post-civilisation, catching rattlesnakes for dinner is not a tempting prospect once civilisation has collapsed. In a nod to the 17th century English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, David Byrne sees savagery as the state of nature. Thus, sovereignty has to be restored lest we descend into the the very thing we’ve tried to get way from throughout our painful history. For Joni Mitchell, the romanticism is straight out of a Gaugin painting of Tahitian women. Noble savagery, all swished with colour. For David Byrne, this post-apocalyptic bloom might as well be algal. For Joni, the optimal state of existence is what you might term prelapsarian, that is to say, straight from the Garden of Eden before the flood. Humans are the harbingers of apocalypse for her. Everything they do to commodify their world ends up being worse than the purity of what it replaced.
As Byrne sings toward the end verses:
We used to microwave
Now we just eat nuts and berries.
Don’t leave me stranded here
I can’t get used to this lifestyle
Both these splendid tunes are musical museum pieces for good reason. You or I couldn’t sit down and write them in an afternoon. But in spite of their substantive differences, both numbers are really just two sides of the same coin. Both deal with before and after. Both lament loss. Both pivot around this idea of the aftermath of a profound transition felt by everyone. In this regard, one can thread them to the current state of lockdown being experienced around the world. As has become all too apparent that everyone is feeling a different vibe to the recent halting of practically all human activity in the face of a deadly virus, we may well ask: is it time for a prequel to these songs? This time, in lieu of loss, the unnamed songwriter can wax lyrical about how we unpaved paradise, took down a parking lot. Of how we took all the museums, put them in a massive tree. Or, this was going to be real estate, but it was decided the best buildings are trees. Or, please leave me stranded here, I could get used to this lockdown.
Leave something for the birds and the bees. Leave something for us and those of us to come.