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Monday, 11 April 2011

Songs in the key of Griff: Dark Lonely Street

Now, I know that I generally leave the meanders down musical memory lane to Gordon, but I'm going to break with tradition today and write a retrospective piece about a song that means an awful lot to me, for reasons that I hope I'll soon make clear. In actual fact, it was Gordon who prompted this piece and it's really a companion piece to his own commendable Eddie Cochran blog (see below). After reading Gordon's blog I was struck with two thoughts:
Firstly, I was wryly amused by his mention of my own, off-the-cuff, joke based around the premise that the listeners would have an intimate knowledge of obscure Eddie Cochran B-side tracks. I'm afraid to say that that is indeed a true account of the type of badinage in which the Streetlampers indulge, even when engaged in 15 mile treks across heath and muir . If that glimpse into our day-to-day life makes us seem a little like music-obsessed, anal compulsives then I can only say in our defence... Erm, actually, I can't say anything in our defence, we are what we are, but we're harmless at least!

Secondly, it made me think, for the nth time, about a song that has haunted me from the first moment I heard it, namely; Dark Lonely Street by Eddie Cochran. Interestingly, although it was originally a B-side, I first heard this song on a, hard to obtain, 1985, recorded in mono, vinyl LP that I had borrowed from Gordon. Called 'Eddie Cochran - The Hollywood Sessions', the album features; Eddie, sound engineers and assorted musicians rehearsing songs in a fairly informal way in the studio, while the tape recorder rolls in the background. For a neophyte musician, the album was a priceless insight into the process by which professionals record and how they behave in doing so. What's more, it was agreeably reassuring to hear the multiple false starts and re-takes so familiar to my own musical experience. Many people would consider an album of discarded studio out-takes to be merely a typical music industry, scraping-the-bottom-of-the-barrel, money-making exercise, but to me that album constituded an incalculably valuable part of my musical education. Plus, it brought me Dark Lonely Street.

So what is it about Dark Lonely Street that marks it out from other songs? Let me attempt to explain. A couple of years ago I decided to compile a list of those songs which held the most meaning for me personally. The culmination of this was a blog-piece I posted on Myspace called '15 songs I wish I'd Written' (it was originally 10, but I couldn't confine myself to that. Believe it or not, I actually started with a list of around 80 songs - if you're interested you can see and hear them here). Dark Lonely Street made the cut and featured as one of the 15, and essentially, I suppose, it is because of one line in the middle of its mere 9 lines of lyrics. Here is the lyric in full:

mmm ... mmm ... mmm, this dark lonely street
here am I, I walk alone, I have no love of my own
now each shadow I pass is my looking glass
on this dark lonely street
I'm in love with the dream, of a girl I've never seen
out of reach, out of sight, will I find her tonight
on this dark lonely street?
is my love just pretend, will this dream never end
maybe this cigarette, will help me to forget
this dark lonely street?
mmm ... mmm ... mmm, this dark lonely street

So, what are you thinking? Seems rather slight, perhaps even superficial. Well, I don't think so. Yes, it's sparse and succinct, but it's by no means insignificant. After all, a haiku is composed of only three lines but manages to contain beauty and reveal great truths within that economy. Perhaps it's the very constraint of the medium that makes it so intellectually and aesthetically satifying? The genius of the haiku poet is to focus on 'showing' rather than 'telling' and that's something that Cochran (and song-writing partner Jerry Capehart) manage to such telling effect here. The crucial line, which adds such weight of meaning of the song for me, is:

'I'm in love with the dream, of a girl I've never seen'

The motif of the 'dream lover' is a common one in popular music and has long held a fascination for me through songs such as; Roy Orbison's 'In Dreams', Sunny Clapp's 'Girl of My Dreams' and Patsy Cline's 'Sweet Dreams' to name but three. Where Cochran differs from these songs is that, as well as painting a pithy picture of dark and brooding existential angst, into this he suddenly introduces a further degree of removal from his ideal archetype by singing that; 'he's in love with the dream, of a girl he's never seen'!
He then goes on to ask; 'is my love just pretend, will this dream never end?'

What could he mean? From the moment I first heard this song, this lyric has gnawed at my psyche. In my opinion, this song cuts right to the heart of the nature of love and romantic idealisation, and perhaps even the nature of reality itself. The line "I'm in love with the dream, of a girl I've never seen" shows how aware Cochran was of the self-deceiving notion of romantic love and of how we are all chasing an unattainable exemplar against which reality is a poor and shabby substitute. This lyric can look cynical but to me it's more than that. I believe that in these few lines Cochran shows devastating self-insight with a brutal, penetrating, yet somehow abstruse truthfulness that few pop writers ever achieve. In doing so, he arrives at a philosophical self-awareness that one would normally associate with French existential novelists or ancient Eastern mystics. You think I'm reading too much into a three-minute pop song? Perhaps, but as Gordon would say, if you don't take music deadly and profoundly seriously then you're on the wrong blog.
The other strength of the song is the way in which the music is so beautifully married to the mood of the lyric, something that many song-writers would do well to study. To see what all the fuss is about, here's the song itself on a 78rpm pressing played on a magnificent, classic Dansette-type player (as favoured by our Panda mascot).

An MP3 of the song (minus the crackles) can be downloaded, courtesy of The Streetlamp, here, for further contemplation. For good measure, I'd also like to throw a couple of other cultural nuggets your way. The idea of Maya (the illusive, dreamlike concept of reality found in Indian religions) hinted at here can be found in other Western pop culture artefacts. See the chimerical, intriguing films (and music) of David Lynch or Syd Lane's wonderful, complex album, Hypatia for a very recent example. This type of art, on the edge of the unreal, full of hints, allusions and implications follows in the ancient, mystical tradition; the truth is in there, but grasping it takes both perseverance and a willingness to take leaps into the unknown. Also, as a very good illustration of the unattainable ideal; forever pure and uncontaminated by the disappointment of real life; in popular art I can think of nothing better than this incredible scene from Orson Welles' masterpiece Citizen Kane:

One of my favourite scenes in cinema history; I think it's fair to say that not a month goes by since I first saw that scene that I don't ponder on the enigmatic and transcendent truth that it contains.

Well, that's all from pseuds corner for this installment. Normal service will be resumed next time, but I hope that this deviation from my usual posts was at least a little 'enlightening'.


~Gordon~ Says: appears we are mutating into the same being. A hybrid so scary it defies comprehension!
(I see the girl in the white dress every day....but then you knew that!!)

And now I know where that album went to!!


  1. I really can't tell you how wonderful and refreshing it is to meet such a like minded individual. I just wanted to thank you sincerely for the kindness you have shown towards Syd. Your review for Hypatia was just epic man and I know for a fact it meant the world to her. I loved reading this piece and I will always be checking out what you're up to and what's rocking your world. I like your style my man, I'll be seeing ya around........

    - Jer

  2. @Jeremiah,
    Thank you, I really appreciate the feedback. Hope to see you around too..