Tuesday, September 7, 2010

“1952 Vincent Black Lightning”: Lyrics That Tell Us What We’re Not

> An examination of Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” lyrics, and what they tell us about ourselves

Here’s a deceptively simple question: What makes “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” such an incredible song?

My relationship with Richard Thompson’s most-popular tune has always been an uneasy one. I love it, but I don’t know why. On a passive listen, it seems like a fairly vapid, melodramatic love ballad. In a word, it’s cheesy. Yet I can’t listen to it without the risk of my chin quivering.

For years, without having devoted much thought to the matter, I offhandedly assumed its old-world Irish vibe just gave it a romanticism that resonated with me (yes, Richard Thompson is British; but the song feels Irish). Half the blood in me can be traced back to Ireland...but I need go back only as far as the late ‘70s to tap memories of drunken relatives singing “Danny Boy” or “Harrigan” or some such folk song. Anytime I hear a Celtic-sounding guitar or the flitty drone of bagpipes, I well up by reflex. Mix in lyrics about star-crossed lovers and a young man’s death, and you have an effective recipe for drawing the melancholy out of me — whether the art snob in me likes it or not.

But the song is much, much more than that.

For those of you who don’t know the song or its tale, I’ll give you the synopsis:

Girl (Red Molly) meets Boy (James) when she notices his cool motorcycle (a 1952 Vincent Black Lightning) > Some unspoken courtship happens > Boy proposes marriage to Girl, but discloses to her in earnest: “I’m a dangerous man / for I fought with the law since I was 17, / I robbed many a man to get my Vincent machine. / Now I’m 21 years, I might make 22, / and I don’t mind dying but for the love of you.” > They marry > Boy gets shot during a robbery > On his deathbed, Boy sums up his existence: “In my opinion, there’s nothing in this world / beats a 52 Vincent and a red-headed girl” > Boy dies, but not before handing the keys to his prized motorcycle to Girl/Wife.

On the surface, it’s a ridiculously simple story that’s fraught with dubious morality. James is an unyielding criminal, for one thing. If he robbed for some known purpose — like food or rent, or even a certain desperately wanted motorcycle — that would be one thing. But none of these are the case. At the start of the song, James already has his motorcycle. And by the second verse, he has his girl, too. These are the only two things that matter to him. So why, if he truly loved Red Molly, would he not change his ways so that they could have a life together?

Because his one-dimensional existence is exactly what she loves about him. And by extension, it’s what we love about him, too — because he’s everything we are not.

James is a sort of Nietzschian √úbermensch (“Superman”). He has no fear of pain or death. He has no kids to worry for. He never stresses over money. He suffers no regret. And he certainly doesn’t envy someone else’s possibly greener grass.

James is who he is.

Now, I understand how underwhelming that sounds. So what, right? Each one of us is who he is, right? Wrong. We are all, each of us, someone else. And none of us really knows who.

The renowned documentary filmmaker Errol Morris was once asked about the interview process. Specifically, he was asked why he believed people were willing to open up and speak honestly to a camera. “I’m not sure we truly have privledged access to our own minds,” he said. “I don’t think we have any idea who we are...we’re engaged in a constant battle to figure out who we are.” The interview process, he believes, is a means by which some portion of that access may be granted. Like meditation or counseling, it’s a process of isolating yourself from the outside world — and the nonstop bombardment of stimuli it projects — to let the white noise fade...and then listen to what’s left. The truth.

But even for those of us who can get there, personal truths are only glimpsed in moments: the profound dream, the Freudian slip, the breakthrough on your analyst’s couch.

I remember the night I first heard “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.” I was sitting at the bar in the Khyber, alone, waiting for my friend T. My memory of this stands out for two reasons. First, upon hearing this song I’d never heard before, I had the distinct suspicion I’d known it all my life. The feeling was comforting and strange at the same time.

The second thing I remember continues to embarrass me to this day.

T. was late. The opening band was about to go on. More and more hipsters were floating into the place and congregating in little groups. My self-consciousness started to build. I felt like a pariah sitting there by myself. (The brunette by the jukebox with the tarantula tattoo, is she giggling to her friend about me?) I couldn’t take it. So I looked down the far end of the bar, as if I saw someone I knew down there, and pitched my eyes up as if to say, “Hey!” I even lifted my glass and air-toasted the invisible man. It was pathetic. I couldn’t simply sit there, my pure lone self, and wait for my friend. No. To avoid the secret mocking of strangers (which probably wasn’t even happening), I had to act like someone else — a cooler, more-social version of myself, a version who ran into random friends wherever I went.

Erroll Morris argues that we can’t truly know ourselves. But the harsher reality is, we can’t even be true to who we think we are. That alternate version of Greg I adopted at the Khyber: I did that for strangers. And I’m certainly not alone; we’ve all done something like this, and not just under the tension of an uncomforable social situation. We pull out different versions of ourselves in different day-to-day contexts. Which you are you when you’re with your boss? Your father? Your priest? Your most-successful friend?

The first Noble Truth of Buddhism is: Life is suffering. The second is: The origin of suffering is attachment. Maybe the complexities of existence can be reduced to those two simple statements. Each of us has attachments. We’re attached to what we love, what we fear, what we find inspiring, what we find boring, what we feel is right, what we feel is wrong, and on and on.

James is the opposite of us. He does not suffer, even after a shotgun blast to his chest. For James has managed to do what we, as well-rounded real-life humans, cannot: he’s avoided all the trappings and obligations and existential weights of the world (save for two: his motorcycle and his red-headed girl). He even owns his own unique vision of death: “angels and ariels in leather and chrome / swooping down from Heaven to carry [him] home” — as if it’s almost charming to him; you can picture him smiling as the lights go out.

The richest irony is that, only through attachment can we connect with James. Through our attachment to song and lyrics — to the mysterious art of music — we can embody his perfectly reductive and enviable soul, if only for a short time. For the 4:43 we’re listening to this song (or the 5:16 of the live track above), we vicariously exist as James does: with complete, unbridled freedom.

Kris Kristopherson wrote, and Janis Joplin famously sang, that “freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.” And that’s the difference, right there. We always have something to lose — some attachment we’re desperate to hold on to. We love “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” not because of its romanticism or its melancholy. We love it because we love the impossible idea of what James is: a way we’ll never be.