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Tuesday , December 14, 2010
Stories About Songs: "Acid Tongue" by Jenny Lewis (Perfume, Bad Habits, The Beatles & Carrie Bradshaw)
(L to R: Jenny Lewis in Bust; this photo; a perfume bottle at the Barcelona Perfume Museum))
"Acid Tongue" is the fifth song on Acid Tongue by Jenny Lewis, which is my favorite album this autumn. It goes like this:
On the first night of October there was a party at a perfume store in Venice. I brought my friend and we drank coconut water with vodka, and women sprayed perfume on our wrists and the inside of our elbows and on little paper wands we waved around in the air before bringing them to our noses. My friend is very thoughtful about perfume; she says things like "This smells like a leather booth" or "This smells like a head shop" or "This smells like a redhead." I think about whether it makes me smell pretty, and whether it reminds me of fruit and/or exciting flowers. Sometimes I think about boys.
And, with this one bottle, I think about the words in the name. It's the perfume I loved most, it's called Fire & Cream. It's vetiver and sandalwood and patchouli, white lavender and tuberose and orange and orange blossom; its character is "Sinuous, Elegant, Ablaze."
For me fire is:
-the bushes on fire on the side of the freeway when I drove to the beach two Saturdays ago
-wildfires that make the sky orange and red every autumn in L.A.
-Fire of Love by The Gun Club, which has the song "Sex Beat"
-the fireplace on Christmas
-Prometheus stealing fire from the gods, and then having his liver eaten by eagles for all eternity
-candles I light to make the house smell like rose petals or blackberries
-burning leaves, beside pumpkins
-when Jenny Lewis sings "We built ourselves a fire" and "Let's build ourselves a fire" in the second and third verses of "Acid Tongue"
-when Jenny Lewis sings "picked apart like Prometheus" on "Fernando," the song after "Acid Tongue"
-Jenny Lewis's hair
-danger, of course
Cream is the cream of a cream puff and not much more.
Fire & Cream is fall to me, too, but I can't tell if that's because its color is amber-y orange or because it's fall now or because the perfume really truly smells like fall. Mostly I think it smells like fancy tea inside a curvy teapot that I want to swim in. But I like the thought of Fire & Cream smelling like autumn of 2009, because autumn of 2009 already feels so full of things that are perfect (like loving Paul McCartney again, so much, all the time) or sad (like something that's one of the saddest things that'll ever happen in my life, losing someone I love forever) or sweet in the smallest or hugest way (like crushes, or swimming in the ocean in October, or eating a macintosh apple with a fistful of candy corn, or drinking pumpkin beer with some of the best girls in the world when you didn't expect to see them again for too long). This fall is so full of so many things.
The most important part in "Acid Tongue" is when Jenny Lewis sings: "To be lonely is a habit, like smoking or taking drugs. And I've quit them both but man, was it rough." It took me at least a dozen listens to hear those words; until a few weeks ago I thought the song was halfway boring and I'd always drift off before those lines came along. And then one day I just heard them, alone in the car on the way home from the beach, a couple hours before sunset on one of the last Fridays of summer. I heard them just as good as I heard Patti Smith singing, "I'm so young, I'm so goddamned young" on "Privilege (Set Me Free)," or Bruce Springsteen singing "It ain't no sin to be glad you're alive" on "Badlands." Sometimes you hear seven or nine or 21 words all strung together and you know they're going to mean a lot to you forever.
Something from a letter I wrote in the spring of 2006:
i'm reading a joan didion book about california and the big reason i love it is that i'm reading a joan didion book about california while living in california. at night right before sleep i curl up under the blanket you left behind, and i drink bad red wine or chocolate soy milk and read about how when joan didion was a very little girl her maternal grandmother would give her expensive perfume to make her feel better when she was sick. i think that's fantastic. i want to be someone who gives fantastic things to the people she loves, especially when they're feeling bad. right now i feel bad but it's Boring Bad; it's because my skin is breaking out along my chin and all my jeans are grotesquely dirty and i'm too lazy to do laundry, and my phone's not ringing, and i haven't paid my student loans this month, and i'm worried there'll be nothing good to do tomorrow night.
So, that wasn't a very good letter. But the part about Boring Bad is important, in the same way that the lyrics from "Acid Tongue" are important. In the spring of 2006 I was 29 and heartsick, but I'd been heartsick for so many months it'd gone way past Gorgeously Sad and onto Irredeemably Stupid. Sometimes when you're in love with the wrong someone it's real romantic, but when you get stuck in it too long the romance sort of implodes and all you can think to do is feel sorry for yourself. In the spring of 2006, and for at least a year after, I always felt sorry for myself. Very often I'd do things like drive through canyons to the ocean with epic songs on the stereo, or try to write books, or dream about running away to Colorado and learning how not to be scared of riding horses - but still there were hardly ever any moments when I'd stop feeling sorry for myself, when I'd completely shake off the Boring Bad. Boring Bad is the slimy scummy shower-floor-ish residue that keeps clinging to you long after the romantic part imploded; it makes you get so worked up over unwashed jeans and unringing phones that all you've got the energy to do is write dumb letters in bed and, worse, watch so much fucking TV.
Once in the fall of 2006 my friend and I wasted an entire day in my beautiful Colorado watching eight pay-per-view episodes of Sex & The City in a hotel room, eating takeout sausages in syrup from International House of Pancakes with the shades drawn and trying to will away our elephantine hangovers. It's a funny story, but the problem with ingesting too much of that SATC shit - not just in one hotel stay, but over the course of many months or even years - is you start to believe that's what life is really like. You're a Smart Single City-Dwelling Woman, and that's the totality of your identity. You are fiercely independent! You have the crazy freedom to perpetually indulge your emotional recklessness; coupled people could never grasp the depths of your longing, your sadness will always be so much more meaningful than their sadnesses. You will lose your head for love and suffer so grandiosely, or you'll be loved too much by the wrong person and suffocate so stupidly. Maybe you're a girl who owns a lot of records and kind of wants to be a marine biologist sometimes, or a surfer or astronaut or bakery owner or professional apple-picker, or maybe just a writer of books - but in the end the best you could ever be is Carrie Bradshaw sorrowfully sitting by the edge of the bed and telling Big she can't go to Paris on the S&M-themed episode in the middle of season two. Really.
Another part of a letter I wrote in the spring of 2006:
there's this jenny lewis song i can't stop playing; the emotional aesthetic is "glamorous-lonely," which is maybe the best i can shoot for at this point. if you're going to be all heartachey, you might as well play it off like it's something beautiful that every other girl in the world should want to try on for herself, like it's this perfect dress that everyone wants to touch. i can get some satisfaction from that, i think.
Of course, Jenny Lewis does "glamorous-lonely" so much more lovely than Carrie Bradshaw. And Jenny Lewis doesn't just sing "I'd rather be lonely, I'd rather be free": She also sings "I think I'll go out and embarrass myself by getting drunk and falling down in the street" and "I got a tail if you wanna chase it" and "They say California is a recipe for a black hole, and I say I got my best shoes on, I'm ready to go" - and gobs of other good words too. But it's still so poisonous, believing that glamorous-lonely is the "best you can shoot for." It's grossly unimaginative, and even though I always knew that, I never thought of it as habit till I heard the words to "Acid Tongue" a little while ago. It's a habit that means ignoring phone calls, refusing invitations because they're the wrong invitations, secretly despising people when they behave in a way that reveals the kind of worries you so devotedly hide away. Always dreading another tragically unmagical Friday night, but never really thinking too hard about going somewhere besides the bar you went to last Friday and the five Fridays before. And, most of all, resenting the alone moments, even the moments of driving through canyons to the ocean with epic songs on the stereo. Resentment is the most ubiquitous thing.
I don't know how you fix it. Probably fixing it is different for everybody. But figuring out the habit thing is maybe the biggest part, or at least a smart first step. And then you keep fixing it and everything gets better and eventually it's a little or a lot more golden.
And then sometimes the days go more like this:
Like: walking down the street on a hot October afternoon, listening to John Lennon singing "If you're lonely you can talk to me" while buying a bottle of pink wine and a pack of gum in the creepiest liquor store. Walking back home with two big pieces of peppermint gum in your mouth, pouring a little wine into a sexy-looking bottle that once held lavender soda. Drinking the wine, chewing the gum, washing your hair with coconut shampoo, rubbing cocoa butter into your legs, dabbing Fire & Cream on your wrists and on your neck. Putting on a blue dress, putting on your cowboy boots, going to see a boy who smiles a lot. Smiling a lot! So much.
And then kissing on a corner, singing with Paul McCartney all the way home, LOUD. Standing in the sunshine at a hamburger stand when you're supposed to be working, singing "I'm So Tired" (in your head, soft).
And then swimming with your friends in the Pacific Ocean, answering your phone on the beach, flying home to your family fourteen hours later. Singing "Hey Jude" in an airport (on the people mover, in your head, soft and loud). Hugging everyone you love the most in the whole world, hugging them all again, hugging your best friend. Drinking coffee in the rain so early it's still dark out, playing Van Morrison alone in the car and not singing at all.
Kissing goodbye forever, crying and crying and saying some prayers, and then saying your prayers all over again, and again. Drinking coffee and eating warm apples with your little brother and your little sister and all your little cousins, none of whom are very little anymore.
Sleeping in the afternoon even though you didn't mean to, writing words, watching movies, reading books, scanning pictures, buying songs. Eating all the cookies and apples and apple pie everyone keeps leaving on your family's front doorstep. Eating some more.
And then: putting on some perfume to go walking down the street on a cold October afternoon, wearing royal-blue sequined shoes, listening to The Beatles singing "Love you, love you/Love you, love you," kicking the dead apples that have fallen all over the ground. The apples are red and bruised but hard and good for kicking; the kicking matches the guitar and it takes up your whole head. For two minutes and 20 seconds there's just apples and Beatles and sparkly shoes, and everything is sad and happy at the very same time. Maybe you're not entirely Sinuous, Elegant, Ablaze, at least not today - but you're not glamorous-lonely either, and you're definitely not Boring Bad. You're just apple-y and Beatles-y and a little bit dreamy, full of fall and full of so many things. It's perfect and sad and sweet, and it's enough, for now.
Tags: apples, autumn of 2009, Boring Bad, Colorado, cream puffs, fall, fire, Jenny Lewis, Joan Didion, lavender soda, letters, Los Angeles, Massachusetts, Paul McCartney, perfume, pink wine, Sex & The City, spring of 2006, Strange Invisible, The Beatles
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