Like some of the other songs in this series that I really should stop neglecting, this song is relatively straightforward. It’s a young band asking a simple question: “Is my message getting through?”
Rock stars often don’t do themselves any favors when they sing about their jobs. Bullet With Butterfly Wings isn’t one of Billy Corgan’s most relatable lyrics. Even Rebecca Black recorded a song about dealing with fame, which seems a bit like an arsonist singing We Didn’t Start the Fire.
But musicians are in the perfect position to give us insight into creativity, that vital force no one really understands. We can feel the frustration in the Rush song Losing It or Suzanne Vega’s paean to writer’s block, Rusted Pipe.
And sometimes, creative people bare their souls or produce something that seems so important, only to see it fall on deaf ears. That’s devastating, even if your income isn’t dependent on whatever you’re creating.
Bill Bruford, the great drummer who came up with classic accompaniments with Yes and endured Robert Fripp in King Crimson, had some thoughts on this in his terrific autobiography:
We need the feedback of doing well because, as they say, nothing succeeds like success. Down in the pub, we all talk of ‘making it’, as if there were no other route to happiness. The industry promotes itself as a permanent jackpot or lottery: winner takes all, losers never even get a hearing.
Bruford, though, sees vindication in the mere act of completing a project:
Why do I like the CDs so much? The actual, physical CDs? Because they got made, dammit, and made to the best of my ability. … The CDs stand as a permanent, undeniable testament to the fact that I got the job done. I triumphed, when I could have just packed up and gone home.
Granted, we can feel the same way about any number of jobs. I know a couple of home-builders who can always point with pride to something they built or designed. But a house has served its ultimate purpose if someone lives in it. Others can debate the aesthetics (highly recommended but apparently dormant blog: unhappyhipsters.com), but as long as someone buys it, the job is done.
To be creative is to open a door for rejection. Failure. Criticism. Maybe all at the same time. Little wonder so many creative people are either self-medicated or psych-medicated.
“Many very personable entertainers and “creatives” likewise suffer depression, although in fact the only group of artists who actually suffer it disproportionately are – you guessed it – writers,” wrote Tim Lott in a sobering piece on depression in The Guardian.
Comedians, too, seem to suffer in disproportionate quantities. Robin Williams’ death reinforced that notion. Maria Bamford has made great comedy out of explaining to people that OCD isn’t just some cute quirk but actually (in some cases, anyway) a horrifying state that flings anxieties into your head. And today, there’s an outpouring of support for Patton Oswalt, who has done great comedy on Prozac and parenting and now finds himself a single parent after the sudden passing of his wife.
Bruford is a little more light-hearted but acerbic near the end of his memoir: “Getting through the music business was beginning to require some sort of armour. Almost everyone I’d met had something, be it drugs, ferocious self-loathing, messianic arrogance, or a combination platter of these and many other coping mechanisms.” Five chapters later, he quit.
You get the point. Working in the creative world is tough. Even guys like me who mostly write about the escapist world of sports deal with some of these issues.
So when a tall, brash Swedish woman unleashes her powerful voice to ask if her message is getting through, she’s singing for a lot of people.
Meet The Sounds. They’re a little like Sweden’s answer to Missing Persons, except Maja Ivarsson’s voice is to Dale Bozzio’s what the July 4th D.C. fireworks display is to a sparkler.
The studio version of No One Sleeps When I’m Awake is a masterpiece, but it’s also worth checking out their energetic performance on David Letterman’s show:
This is no whiny Bullet With Butterfly Wings. This is a major-key, guitars-and-keyboards-blazing affirmation.
I may never figure out quite what she means when she sings the title phrase “No one sleeps when I’m awake.” I’m a parent. We’re thrilled when someone else in the house is asleep before us.
But the rest of the song is more direct. These songs come from her heart. You might not be listening, and you know what? That hurts. But she isn’t giving up.
You know it hurt so bad, just like I knew that it would / But I’d do it again, do it again if I could
Because every once in a while, everything clicks. Magic happens. The message does get through. And then we go on MTV Cribs to show off the lions sculpted in marble next to the fireplace — or at least, we celebrate the fact that we made a connection.
I recently had the great privilege of standing about 10 feet away from Bob Mould at a show at the 9:30 Club. Most of the set was a rapid-fire salvo of fast songs from his solo days, his Sugar days and his early Husker Du days. Then he tossed in one song — the only time I saw him switch from the bridge pickup to the middle pickup on his Stratocaster — at a slower tempo. It was Hardly Getting Over It, from the Huskers’ saddest album, Candy Apple Grey. He changed the lyrics slightly — in the original, he wonders what he’ll do when his parents die, but a couple of decades later, his parents have actually passed away. (See Annie Zaleski’s review of Beauty and Ruin, on which he deals with the death of his father.) So in this performance, he asked, “And what did I do / when they died?”
I hope he saw me nodding back at him in appreciation. I lost my mom in 1995. Dad followed in 2014. He had remarried, and my beloved stepmom followed this spring. With this song, it was as if Mould took time out from showing that a guy in his mid-50s can still bound around a stage playing searing guitar to say, “Hey. Yeah, I’ve been there.”
And then he ripped back into more uptempo Husker Du songs. Candy Apple Grey was sometimes ridiculed, even by band members, as a huge downer of an album. But in this context, the sadness of Hardly Getting Over It was simply part of LIFE — a life we’re all determined to spend well.
I even took out my earplugs to hear Celebrated Summer in all its eardrum-splitting glory. (If you see Mould, be alert — he plays loud.) The connection was made. Mould’s courage and creativity had spoken to those of us crowding the stage, maybe even the two women who had been invading my personal space as if pushing me aside like a persistent two-headed blonde glacier.
Writers rarely make such a direct connection, Bruno Kirby and Carrie Fisher in When Harry Met Sally notwithstanding. But when it works, it’s worth it.
Do it again if I could? Hell yeah. I’m going to sit down with an unpublished manuscript, rewrite it and self-publish it, listening to this anthem of perseverance multiple times in the process.
If Maja Ivarsson can struggle with self-doubt and then come out and strut around David Letterman’s stage belting out this song, then I can finish this book. If Bamford and Bruford can take joy in getting their messages across, then you can do something, too.
That’s not some cliched bit of nonsense about being able to do anything you want. You can’t. But you’re better off trying.
Do it again if you can. Or just do it the first time.