Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Only Girl I’ve Ever Loved: “Holland, 1945” & The Dead Girl Song Tradition

It sounds like a question from a demented Muppet parallel universe: Why are there so many songs about dead girls?

Its origins came down through those old, weird murder ballads like “Ommie Wise” and “Pretty Polly,” which were basically the dime-store pulp novel of the Middle Ages. Then you had country weepers like Roy Acuff’s “Jewel of Heaven” and hard blues like Son House’s “Death Letter Blues,” which mixed together to make music like Elvis Presley’s “Mystery Train,” a strange song about a lover’s corpse on a train that many believe is his finest record (I still hold that it’s “Long Black Limousine” – see earlier posting – about a lover’s corpse in an automobile). And then come those early-’60s death-as-kitsch car-crash records like J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers’ “Last Kiss,” Mark Dinning’s “Teen Angel,” and Jan & Dean’s “Dead Man’s Curve.” Before long, there’s any number of Roy Orbison’s doom-struck ballads, the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It, Black,” and Bob Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna,” depending on how far you were willing to take them.

From thereon, we get variations on a theme. The Beatles sing of departed spinsters (“Eleanor Rigby”) and their deceased mothers (“Julia,” “Let It Be”); Neil Young sings about killing the girl himself (“Down by the River”) and the Clash run with it a few years later (“I Fought the Law”); Elton John sings of a famous dead woman (“Candle in the Wind”); Jimi Hendrix sings about meeting a girl who is already dead and his plans to join her (“Angel”); Joy Division witness a girl die from a seizure (“She’s Lost Control”); the Smiths’ say goodbye to a girlfriend in a coma (“Girlfriend in a Coma”); and Don McLean finds a muse in a girl who sang the blues (“American Pie”).

And Randy Newman takes the cake as only he knows how, with a song about a girl getting killed by a beach-cleaning machine while still dressed in her high school graduation gown (“Lucinda”) – and somehow makes it work seamlessly.

The angst of the ’90s was the natural home for a revival in dead girl rock and roll, with the scene overrun by meekly raw singers spinning twisted tales of love and death. Kurt Cobain was the one who took it the farthest. Just consider “Heart Shaped Box,” inspired by a documentary about children who were dying of cancer. “I wish I could eat your cancer well,” indeed. Meanwhile, Pearl Jam unintentionally brought things full-circle when their cover of J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers’ “Last Kiss” was leaked onto the radio in 1999 and eventually hit #2 on the charts, the biggest hit of their career.

But one year before Pearl Jam’s biggest hit came what may be the ultimate dead girl rock and roll experience: Neutral Milk Hotel’s 1998 masterpiece, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Time is showing it to be one of the finest and most influential albums of its era, which is all the more surprising seeing as how it slipped by everyone unnoticed the first time around. I never appreciated how big it was until I took part in the Antifolk scene in the East Village, a scattershot array of ex-folkies, freaks, and tunesmiths if there ever was one. Aeroplane was a record we could all agree on – it’s the closest thing to how they say the old Harry Smith Anthology was for the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early ’60s. It was the oracle that everyone studied and knew inside and out.

But for all the things that Aeroplane is, was, and may be, there is one element that seems to get the most attention. One of the first things anyone learns about the record is that it is partly based on an apparent love for Anne Frank, but when you break down the actual album, there are only a few places that explicitly relate to her (three, by my count). It’s like pinball in the Who’s Tommy or Sgt. Pepper in the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper – its greatest trick is making it seem as though it’s everywhere.

The first direct allusion to Anne Frank doesn’t come until the song at the center of the album’s running order, “Holland, 1945.” After an offhanded punk rock count-off, over-driven acoustic guitars and bashing drums swoop in to create a sea of fuzz and chaos that make way for singer Jeff Magnum’s brave, beautiful words, strung up and a bit nasal, with a bittersweet melody that slices through everything like a hot butter knife:

The only girl I’ve ever loved
Was born with roses in her eyes
But then they buried her alive
One evening, 1945
With just her sister at her side
And only weeks before the guns
All came and rained on everyone

These seven lines come and go pretty quickly and are followed by many partially-related and entirely unrelated lyrics, but the song could’ve ended just after these words and not lost any of its impact. The finality of it all is staggering; for all of the songs ever written about dead girls, these lines are the bluntest, the harshest, and, to my ears at least, the most intriguing. “Holland, 1945” is a song about falling in love with a girl who is already dead – in fact, a girl in large part famous for being dead – long before the singer was ever even born.

Everyone who went to grade school knows who Anne Frank is, and the song gets the outlines of the story right, even if she technically never was interned in Holland: After her family was found by the Gestapo in August 1944, Anne, her sister, and mother were all sent to Auschwitz in September, with Anne and her sister eventually relocating to Bergen-Belsen the following month. Both sisters died in a typhus epidemic that swept through the camp in March 1945, a few weeks before the British liberated the camp. Anne and her sister were buried in a mass grave.

What does it mean that we can take someone who lived before we were born and learn so much about them that we feel as though we know them better than many of the people that we are actually friends with? At its root, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is about grappling with intimacy, and what it means to become physically close to someone; nearly every song has at least a few uncomfortable lines about hands moving in mouths or fingers on the notches of the spine.

The Anne Frank theme seems to balance it all as an example of mental/emotional intimacy. Anne Frank lives through the words she wrote in her diary, words that she presumably did not expect to share with thousands of people for over a half-century after her death. And yet, by being dead, she pulls the rug out from under the album’s fascination with physicality because she is not here; we’re not even sure of the exact location of her burial ground.

“I want to get on; I can’t imagine that I would have to lead the same sort of life as Mummy and Mrs. Van Daan and all the women who do their work and are then forgotten,” Anne Frank wrote in her diary on April 4, 1944, less than a year before she would die. “I must have something besides a husband and children, something I can devote myself to! I want to go on living even after my death! And therefore, I am grateful to God for giving me this gift, this possibility of developing myself and of writing, of expressing, all that is in me.”

It may not be love in a romantic sense, but when Magnum sings that the only girl he ever loved “was born with roses in her eyes,” you believe him, just as you believe that she was buried alive just a few weeks before the guns rained down on everybody. His love for Anne Frank is a love of and for humanity. What Anne Frank was and what she has come to represent is what the singer loves, which may just be another way of saying he loves the braveness and the frailty in her that he can also perhaps see in himself.

If this is true, it brings the rock and roll tradition of dead girls to its farthest possible conclusion: The dead girl is not an external love who befell a tragic fate, but rather an internal feeling of love that was inside of us all along.

No wonder we’d want to keep white roses in their eyes.

1 comment:

  1. What I found craziest in reading about Jeff Mangum's songwriting M.O. is that he wrote largely through stream-of-consciousness. It sounded to me like he ad libbed a lot at first & gradually changed them the more he repeated the song. He also had a lot of night terrors & dreams on which he based his lyrics & motifs. There are a good many references to the supernatural on the album, & I tend to view it as his experience with "Anna's ghost all around", the way his obsession with her came to influence so much of what he did & how he perceived her, as if she came to benevolently haunt him in a surreal, dream-state-alternate-history kind of way.
    I read that he wrote the "white roses" lyric without consciously knowing who the White Roses were. When someone told them about them he freaked!