I have noticed that as the culture grows old, we get more self referential in what we do and how it relates to the larger world of ‘doing’. We have plays about painting, movies about songs, photos reference classic icons of the brush.
And specifically in the form of songwriting, it allows a perfectly cultured control freak to be the film Director of their little scene, concocting every grain of salt, every gray scale of the light that filters in, perfect actors of our own design (but in someone else’s image, invariably) speaking meaning with a an awesome and only fictional gravitas, well timed and posed.
I look to Costello with his references to cast and players, Springsteen whose best work sounds like a Hollywood pitch for a movie you may or may not want to see. Joni Mitchell who brings you into focus, into frame and you can see the dust in the desert or the snow on the mountains (or river to skate away on) as only someone who is not simply influenced, but informed, by cinema.
And thus we have ‘Romeo and Juliet’ written by some long dead anglo, and re imagined by a still alive anglo into West Side Story. And despite the plunder of our American classic culture, it works.
Not a Dire Straits fan. Despite that, due to timing of their ascendancy with ‘Sultans Of Swing’ all over all radios and I seem to recall seeing their ‘Skateaway’ video about 30,000 times, so Id bet that’s MTV.
In short, I think they are a great band someone else should love.
I think I was originally turned onto ‘Romeo and Juliet’ via The Indigo Girls. I had a mad crush on them. I know. The Indigo Girls first album was great and earnest and songs with hooks and great counter harmonies. Lyrically solid. I had a picture of them I used to moon over. I know.
And on some Indigo Girls B-Sides collection I heard them cover ‘Romeo and Juliet’. And I was caught by the opening line. Writing a great opening line to a song is an art, something that immediately engages your imagination, concerned with what was just said to you.
A lovestruck Romeo sings a streetside serenade
Laying everybody low with a love song that he made
Finds a streetlight, steps out of the shade
Says something like, “You and me babe—how ’bout it?”
And if there’s any question left, its answered by this
Juliet says, “Hey it’s Romeo. You nearly gimme a heart attack”
He’s underneath the window; she’s singing, “Hey, la, my boyfriend’s back.’
I just have no defense against referential rock and roll used well. By the time he hits that Angels line, it paints such an absolute film cell frame around the drab West Side Story bop that these characters occupy.
And I forget, I forget the movie song
Like that. There. And then into two deep and beautiful verses that visit the same neighborhood as Tom Waits, some Bruce Springsteen….desperate and impassioned and killer lines piled upon each other ending in:
“Oh Romeo, yeah. You know, I used to have a scene with him.”
And then Mark Knopfler pulls back the POV and you see it pretty clear. This isn’t Shakespeare. This isn’t Bernstein. This is a kid who has learned how to act by actors. Learned how to feel by people projecting feeling. He has no real function except to be the blank screen for petite dramas play out across.
I can’t do the talks like they talk on the TV
And I can’t do a love song like the way it’s meant to be
I can’t do everything but I’ll do anything for you
I can’t do anything except be in love with you
And he plays on…
Juliet, when we made love you used to cry
You said, “I love you like the stars above, I’ll love you ’til I die.”
There’s a place for us, you know the movie song
When you gonna realize it was just that the time was wrong, Juliet?
And its a song. So that’s where it gets left. Fill in the blanks yourself. It winds away back to the opening lines…effective…maybe chilling. While Leonard Bernstein either spins or harmonizes from his grave. While Shakespeare lives to see another day.
While the listener just….exhales.