Writing about music is difficult, at least if you are willing to probe beneath the surface of facts and opinions about the lives of musicians and performers. For one thing, our frames of reference are so different that we might as well not be listening to the same song, as I found out one day when a cleaner at the Cape Town Waterfront walked up to me and said by way of a compliment: “Music man, your voice is coming strong: you sound just like Philip Collins.”
Another time a respected colleague who tutored English with me at the University of Stellenbosch sent me home with a highly recommended tape of the Dave Matthews Band (I forget which album) assuring me that it would change my life. It didn’t.
It’s hard to give a name to the quality I look for in a song, which I find in the songs I’ve written about here and which Collins and Matthews will never have for me. If pinned to a wall I would probably have to settle for presence, a feeling that the singer is absolutely at the forefront of the material.
Yesterday, for instance, I felt this quality very strongly in a song from the Stooges’ 1970 Fun House album. Dirt looks unobtrusive on a lyric sheet, but it is transformed by Iggy Pop’s voice into something primitive and powerful, strangely menacing and utterly convincing: “Ooh, I been dirt / And I don’t care / Ooh, I been dirt / And I don’t care / Cause I’m burning inside / I’m just a yearning inside / And I’m the fire o’ life …”
When Iggy sings the word “dirt” (it becomes “hurt” later on in the song) he puts into it a whole world of self-loathing, then waits for it to sink in before his voice comes defiantly back.
I hear that defiance most clearly in the word “inside”, repeated over and over like an incantation, suggesting a vast distance between the singer and everything else. Later he reinforces this sense when he sings: And do you feel it? / Said do you feel it when you touch me? / Said do you feel it when you touch me? / There’s a fire / Well, it’s a fire …”
Iggy is such a master of timing and phrasing that we do feel it, and it is a troubling experience. There is an invitation in these lines, but the fire Iggy summons is not comforting. Words like “fire” and “touch” are charged to such an extent that they create a sense of danger, as if the singer is radioactive.
The accompaniment provided by the band is suitably raw and ragged: there is a wonderful moment near the end when the beat changes and it sounds as if the song is lurching out of control. But it is Iggy’s voice that stays, refusing to go away or be anything but itself.