Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Sylvia Plath

Ryan Adams--"Sylvia Plath (live)" (mp3)
Paul Westerberg--"Crackle and Drag (original take)" (mp3)

Kiss me and you will see how important I am.
--Sylvia Plath

The creative, wild, self-destructive, educated, dangerous, sexual, brilliant, despondent, vulnerable, unrestrained, unsaveable woman. The femme fatale. The woman with a thousand faces. The woman as muse.

That woman, or at least the archetype that she has become, is Sylvia Plath, confessional poet of the 50's and 60's, who died by suicide in 1963.

It might seem strange to be writing about Sylvia Plath during a month devoted to music, but then she is the inspiration for two of my favorite songs of this eleven-year-old century--Ryan Adams' "Sylvia Plath" and Paul Westerberg's "Crackle and Drag."

I am not surprised at all that Plath would become a muse for these two esteemed songwriters. What man doesn't think he could have done something for Sylvia or her equally well-groomed, urbane counterpart, Anne Sexton? I had been looking for a context in which to explore this fascination, which I share, for it is the subject of the songs that attracts me as much as the songs themselves.

The two songs could not be more different.

Ryan Adams' composition is elegaic, comic, and casual, an imagined life, not with Sylvia Plath, but with "a Sylvia Plath." He works the archtype, the woman who is unbound by Earth's rules, who indulges her every whim and fancy and who would take you (him) along for the ride. While he teases her behaviors and his own desires to share in them, his soft, sparse piano accompaniment mourns her absence, as if the worst loss one could possibly have is the one that he never had to begin with--she who would take you way beyond your established boundaries, but safely. His Plath is the passionate creature unconcerned for her own outcome, the woman he might have a fling with, knowing for any number of reasons that it could not possibly last, but knowing that he would indulge anyway:

And she and I would sleep on a boat
And swim in the sea without clothes
With rain falling fast on the sea
While she was swimming away, she'd be winking at me
Telling me it would all be okay
Out on the horizon and fading away
And I'd swim to the boat and I'd laugh
I gotta get me a Sylvia Plath

Westerberg's song is a frenetic rocker with urgent, rising guitar chords and verses that are nearly shouted, built around the details of Plath's squallid death, caring for her children in a cold, London flat before taking care of herself in a different way, using the gas in the oven:

She made a good go for a weeping willow
She closed the windows and made herself a pillow
And took a long deep breath
While her babies slept

Doomed, tragic, neglected by the end, this is the Sylvia Plath who was likely bi-polar, waking in the middle of the night to write stunning, manic poetry that has lasted longer than anything her brief, controlling husband has ever written. The constant repetition that she "made a good go for a weeping willow" suggests an empathy, an understanding on the part of the songwriter that she did the best she could with her mental state and circumstances.

See what I'm doing? I'm subtly making the case that Ted Hughes was never good enough for her, that he wronged her for leaving her with two small children. The woman who started their relationship by ripping the flesh of his cheek at a cocktail party in an act of wanton carnality could never, in our internal narratives, be served by one flawed mortal man. And so we despise him. I do. He is Yoko to her John Lennon, perhaps more talented, but completely unsympathetic and doomed himself to live decades beyond her legend.

Men want to rescue, and they want to rescue the Sylvia Plaths. They want to rescue the doomed, even rescue the unrescuable long after there is any chance of rescue. They want to dream of that rescue, that turning of a strong tide. The very idea enrages our women--those who are strong, stable, balanced, sacrificing in everyday ways without grand gestures, not projecting a victimhood of time, upbringing, or circumstance. But we cannot help it. We are men. We hear her siren song even across the decades. We send out our own songs in return.

Which song is better? There is no comparison, which is to say that the two songs tap into such different parts of the myth that, besides references to the same subject, they share little in common. Adams' makes me feel empty; Westerberg's taps into my own moments of desperation. Listen to both, and then go back to the source.


Billy said...

I had to memorize and recite "Daddy" for public speaking in 10th grade. I was completely freaked out, completely over my head, and completely intrigued.

Sylvia Plath was Emo before Emo was cool. I think she would have been into Bauhaus and The Smiths if she'd been born 30-40 years later. Or she would have listened to them just so she could mock their wannabe fake darkness and gloom that had no chance of measuring to what she had inside her.

Westerburg has wrestled plenty of psychological demons. I can see where he might identify and sympathize with Ms. Plath.

Anonymous said...

The Smiths are another great 80's band, Bob.