Songs are mercurial things, their writers’ biographical unburdening acting so readily as cyphers for the experiential and emotional realities of the audience – us – that we take ownership of them, use them as crutches or waymarkers in the narrative journey of our own unfurling lives. Here, singer-songwriter Pete Astor examines the porous border between personal authenticity and poetic universality in the songwriter’s art. “Songs tell truths, but not the truth”, he explains…

Blood on the Cornflakes

California, 1974; breakfast time. The well-known wife has got the kids ready, taken them to school and has returned to the state-of-the-art kitchen for a mid-morning coffee. Late rising, the famous husband comes down, but he is not alone. With an assortment of scarves, long, tumbling black curls, accompanied by a vague silence, the husband’s latest companion stares out at the Pacific through the floor-to-ceiling window. Once again, perhaps under some misplaced idea of freedom and openness, the husband has brought one of his lovers to the family home. And now they are having breakfast. Later that day, the wife will go to see a local lawyer and file for divorce.
What’s true? And, more specifically, what’s true in a song? Songs inhabit us: they soundtrack, define, explain, bemoan, critique, articulate and parallel our lives. We use songs with scant regard to the biographical truths they might be telling. As audiences, we try to understand songs but, at the same time, project our own meanings on to them. So the truth of any song or album of songs inevitably gets a bumpy ride. And each album of songs performs an uncomfortable, indulgent, and sometimes embarrassing dance with that thing, the truth – and, as a songwriter and listener, I play the same games along with it.
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Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks is quite an album – I’m not the first person to say that. After accidents, marriage and reclusive family life, Dylan returned full time to the world of music with the release of Planet Waves and his 1974 tour of the USA. This is when Dylan’s marriage started to unravel, with serial infidelities, and, yes, it is alleged that he brought a series of lovers down to breakfast in the family home. These various biographical nuggets of ‘truth’ have become part of the listening experience for Dylan aficionados, giving a patina of authenticity to the songs. In an interview with Mary Travers (of Peter, Paul and Mary fame), Dylan said, “A lot of people tell me they enjoyed that album. It’s hard for me to relate to people enjoying that kind of pain.” Dylan had also recently completed an art course with painter Norman Raeben that, he said, changed the way he saw the world; Raeben was “more powerful than any magician”, opined Dylan. “I went home after that and my wife never did understand me ever since that day. She never knew what I was talking about. And I couldn’t possibly explain it.” On Blood on the Tracks, the song ‘You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go’ is said to document an affair with CBS executive Ellen Bernstein. If these songs feel real, well, it’s because they are! Or so we can believe, having been supplied with a range of biographical ‘truths’.
However, by the time Dylan came to write his memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, seemingly referring to the album, he writes, with the kind of spectacular implausibility that only Dylan can muster: “I would even record an entire album based on Chekhov short stories. Critics thought it was autobiographical – that was fine.” It seemed as if, now so many background details about the album were in the public domain, he was keen to return the meanings of the songs on Blood on the Tracks to something more fluid. And in doing this, it seems he was seeking to allow the songs more potency, tacitly acknowledging the ways that we use songs as ciphers for what we ourselves are going through in our emotional lives. As well as listening to songs, we listen through songs, we inhabit them: in the most straightforward sense, we sing along, or sing them in our heads. So, on the one hand, we listen to, enjoy and appreciate songs and the work of the performers and writers and listen in to what they do; on the other, we use what they do for our own purposes. We make the truths in our own heads and lives.
So, when I hear Jeffery Lewis’ ‘Scowling Crackhead Ian’ the opening track on his latest record, Manhattan, I’m moved, not because I’ve ever encountered the scary, aforementioned Ian, but because the locations and interrelations he describes can be mapped on to my own world and life, despite it being far away from Manhattan and the particular details Lewis unfurls – the wistful biographical ache touches a universal feeling. In other words, I use the song, and its words, for my own emotional ends, not always worrying exactly what Lewis might have meant when he wrote it. So, a lyric can often be totally abstract and do very good work in a song. Artists like Bon Iver mainstay Justin Vernon or Sigur Rós, provide a very wide semantic palette on which to map our meanings, leaving narrative understandings wide open, which makes it all the more easy for listeners to use their music to feel along with. Listening to For Emma, Forever Ago we may well know the biographical truth that Vernon, his relationship having ended, retreated to a remote cabin to make the album, but listening to the opening track, ‘Flume’, all we can do is luxuriate in the exquisite ache in his voice as he sings half-heard words, these becoming all the more unclear after the opening line: “I am my mother’s only son.” The various lyrical approximations thrown up by the internet, further prove how mutable the meanings of song words can be. But the lyric is, nonetheless, pretty damn heartbreaking; one can just imagine Vernon in the long, lonely winter, in his cabin in Wisconsin, singing songs for lost love. Jónsi, the singer and lyricist in the Icelandic group Sigur Ros, takes lyric abstraction even further. Most of the band’s material is sung in ‘hopelandic’, their own invented language, leaving meanings almost completely open for listeners.
That should mean that, as long as the words feel emotional, you can sing pretty much anything and it can function as a conduit for the listener’s feelings. But, in my experience as a songwriter, I know that this is not true. Actually, a song only takes flight when it’s based on a real experience, when the feelings it articulates are somehow authentic. I have resisted the temptation to wheel out the inverted commas here: in our relativist world, we all know that words like ‘real’ and ‘authentic’ are constructions (sorry, the inverted commas were just too tempting…). But, no matter how mercurial these notions are, I’d say, without them, nothing I really want to hear happens in a song. And me? I’ve just finished a record called Spilt Milk, invisibly subtitled: ‘time passes, shit happens, don’t cry – but I did!’ And, if you listen to the songs, I think it’s pretty obvious why. But, as the liner notes say, “All resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental”; that, of course, protects the innocent and the guilty, and makes me feel less uncomfortable about telling the truth. Because I know, in the end, ‘songs tell truths, but not the truth’.
Pete Astor will be giving a lecture at Goldsmiths college on the ideas included in ‘What’s True’ on 1 Dec 2015 5:00pm – 6:30pm
http://www.gold.ac.uk/calendar/?id=8952
Pete Astor’s Spilt Milk is released by Fortuna Pop in January 2016.

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