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Songs That Breathe

Wanted Man, Johnny Cash, don’t breathe nothing to nobody. Radiohead urge you to keep breathing, Patti Smith’s ‘head is aching as (she) drinks and breathes’ in an Elegie to the lack of breath and absence of friends; and Sting wants you to know that with every breath you take, he will be watching you. Breath is the very air supply of music, the inspiration for some of the very best of rock and roll’s songs; though talking of Air Supply, I think I would rather gulp down Lou Reed’s New York smog scented with rotten cabbages and Dylan’s ‘fish truck that loads’, than listen to that middle of the road drivel.

What makes a good breath song is sometimes simply the musical expression of air through lungs and past vocal chords ..Pink Floyd’s Breathe In The Air starts with the essential heartbeat of life in the womb, a heartbeat that doesn’t need air in the bubble of amniotic fluid that exists before the ching of cash registers that signify a birth into a capitalist nightmare, the laughter of fools, and the breathy divine feminine scream of birth that brings air into lungs of the new born infant. When we are born, we don’t just have to breathe in the air, Pink Floyd tell us, we are ‘forced to care’, to worry about separation, and how we are going to survive the airy scream of existence. Floyd produced an existentialist nightmare, where like Sisyphus rolling his rock up the mountain, only for it to roll back down again, “Pink” is forced to dig hole after hole after hole, the last one of which, he has to put himself into. The song drags us through to the comfort of home, the inevitability of the lack of breath – death, and the possibility of magick running like a silver vein through life, nebulous and ungraspable, with the ‘tolling of the iron bell’. As the roadie announces that he is not afraid of dying, with Rick’s atmospheric keyboards marking the inevitable passing of time, the feminine scream returns again in continuation of the track, named The Great Gig In The Sky, this time joyful, soaring and orgasmic as the whole damn circle repeats again. When the desperation fades to a spooky expression of sorrow, and the song winds down and death takes away the breath we need in order to scream against the seeming mundanity and hopelessness of existence, the slowing of the heartbeat chords bring us to our metaphorical ‘knees’. The quietening of the music as the grave closes, and the heartbeat of new life drags us kicking and screaming into the next track. Quite simply Breathe In The Air is as much a metaphysical exposition as it is rock and roll, and so much the richer for the stunning and sympathetic music that adds so much to the meaning.

Roger Waters, in what i consider a proto-breathe-in-the-air, Breathe from Music From The Body, chooses to focus on the environmental disaster of industry polluting the air and the meadows and ‘grass’ of what he is so very fond. The ‘lunatic was on the grass’ but it wasn’t until these ideas pushed their way through the lungs of the rest of the Pink Floyd band machinery that the genius could really unfold. That said, Music From The Body, is an underrated psychedelic gem, and is worth listening to this track as a counterpoint to the more mature Dark Side Of The Moon material. As an aside, Waters line ‘mushrooming home in a CROWD’, bringing to mind the mushroom cloud of nuclear fallout tainted air, is an absolute act of genius.

It is not just Waters who is concerned about nuclear fallout making breathing troublesome, Kate Bush in her song, Breathing, takes on nuclear fallout and the instinct to ‘keep breathing’, despite that air being full of the ashes of her mother, and her beloved, nicotine and the toxic cancerous results of the ‘bright light’ flashing in the sky, that ‘mushroom cloud’ that Roger skirted around in his Music From The Body. Kate’s refrain of ‘out in….out…in….out….in..’ each breath taking the ‘fallout in out in out in’ causing inevitable sickness and death, but with no other option than to continue breathing in that tainted air. In Japan after Fukushima melted down, and I sat in Tokyo in shock, I was in the enviable position of knowing that dilemma in reality. “What are we going to do?” asks Bush’s backing singers. “We are all going to die.” they continue, while Kate begs ‘we need something to breathe’, and my mind is dragged back to 2011, and my front room in Tokyo, shouting out exactly the same words into the uncaring hostile ether. The human imperative to survive, that autonomic action of breathing, despite the air being deadly, rendered into a claustrophobic cage of a song makes for quite the listening experience. How can we ‘breathe, breathe in the air’ when the air is trying to kill us? The answer is…we have no choice. The pandemic has led all of us to much the same conclusion. The air is potentially deadly, but we all have to breathe, despite it being tainted with airbourne death. Every cough is a little explosion. Every sneeze could kill someone. We are we going to breathe? Keep breathing…..

In possibly the only song ever to be written about disease that sounded hip and cool, Van Morrison’s biggest curio, the immensely hip TB Sheets, could have been written within the last two years, about covid, instead of the equally destructive tuberculosis. Van is desperate to get away from the smell of those TB sheets, to throw open windows, to get out of there, and let someone else come over with a bottle of wine for the sickened Julie, who cannot breathe due to the disease proliferating in her lungs. Leonard Cohen’s The Asthmatic, read here by First Aid Kit, has the whole world dying for breath which is being taken away by the ‘panic of homelessness’, by a life that cannot be ‘overthrown’, because of ‘sorrow’, because of a million things, some seemingly random and strange, some understandable and suffocating, with the world closing in, breath is closed out, shut away, denied and choked dry, just as efficiently as TB or covid. Being able to breathe, but only given tainted killer air. Not being able to force air into cardboard lungs or a paralysed chest. Breath is sacred. Breath is necessary. Breath is all consuming and taken for granted, but not as easy as it feels it is when we take it for granted with every free and easy breathing day.

Detroit’s Breathing Playlist:

Sometimes the breathing in things other than air is a voluntary and willing choice. Coming back to an earlier Van Morrison, with his breathy off the cuff singing in Astral Weeks, Beside You, is a flying high, laid back vibe of a song, with Van singing, “and you breathe in you breathe out you breathe in your breathe out and you are flying on that high flying cloud”, taking the listener with him even if all we have to breathe is air. The pain of loss, of the ‘last’ is as organic as breath itself, as involuntary and necessary, with only breathing in the thc air bringing any relief. The Beatles, with the gorgeous and breathy Girl, and the smoking sound effects, is not a song of love, but rather stoned lust and longing in a love affair on the rocks with a bad girl that drives the Rubber Soul era Beatles to roll another joint and exhale into the mic.

Radiohead are no strangers to ‘relief’. “Today we escape” sings Tom Yorke, so close to the mic we can hear the bubbles of his breath and the smack of his lips. Despite his admonishments to ‘keep breathing’, this deeply dark song about a woman escaping domestic violence with her children, in an attempt to keep breathing, that buzzes with an overwhelming low end bassline, wins my award for the most depressing song on the list. The repeated line ‘hope that you choke’, that her abuser loses the ability to breathe that he has denied her, with a distant soundtrack of children’s voices, is suffocating and bleak. Nothing new for Radiohead, suffocating and bleak is their M.O.

Dylan is as fond of writing about ‘wind’ as Waters is of grass, balls and stones. Idiot Wind, is not a chilling wind from the north, nor is it a wind of change, but rather the wind that comes from his mouth and that of his beloved, who no longer is quite so loved or tolerated. A bitter biting song of a marriage gone wrong. “You’re an idiot babe, It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe” sings Bob. Remind me never to fight with Bob Dylan. Vicious. This ‘idiot wind’ whistles from between his wife’s teeth, every time she opens her mouth. This is a take down not just of his wife, but also himself, in a self aware final verse in which he includes himself in the searing criticism. Breath misused to say things which are ill advised, in the eyes of the aggrieved Dylan, a wind that is only stopped by death. This is the kind of song that perhaps someone might regret writing, a real open heart surgery of a track, that makes the album worthy of the title “Blood on the Tracks”. Brilliant, cruel, ultimately offering redemption or at least culpability and self awareness, and proves that Dylan is the past master of the written and sung word, within it’s idiotically beautifully icy words. Like Dylan promised in the earlier track, Hard Rain, he was always going to “….tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it”, even if some of it was ‘idiot wind’….

Big Thief penned a gentler paen to watching a baby daughter breathe as she sleeps, and a mother’s plea to ‘Breathe in my lungs and I’ll leave in your arms’..I don’t think anyone who has ever been a parent has ever failed to spend at least a little time watching their beloved son or daughter, the perfect object of their love, breathe.

No one loves ya when you are not breathing…or at least not if you are the victim of Street Hassle. Lou Reed wants to know ‘why don’t ya just slip away?’ Lou can always be trusted to shock, and this song is perhaps one of his most shocking songs, a gorgeous lilting half spoken poem that tells the story of a New York love affair with sex and drugs and mutuality. It examines a love, as much as love can be called love in the street hassle scene, a gentle sexual encounter in which ‘neither one regretted a thing’ is about as romantic as street hassle can possibly get. Amid all this mutual appreciation, despite the ‘derision’ of society around them, disaster comes hurrying in, destroying this fragile love. The final verse is heartbreaking. The hapless Romeo’s ‘old lady’ overdoses and dies. Reed recounts the scene in brutal terms, with a little help from a bold Bruce Springsteen of all people:

Hey, that cunt’s not breathing
I think she’s had too much
Of something or other, hey, man, you know what I mean
I don’t mean to scare you
But you’re the one who came here
And you’re the one who’s gotta take her when you leave

None of us want our babies, our loved ones, our lovers to ‘slip away’. As Lou observes, it is indeed a ‘universal truth’ that when ‘someone turns that blue/you know that bitch will never fuck again.’ By allowing himself to narrate the voice of the heartless but practical person who wants the body out of their apartment, Reed allows us to confront our own inhumanity, our own fears of what happens when we stop breathing and end up, ‘just another hit and run’ dragged out ‘by the feet’ on the ‘darkest street’. We all die, and most of us don’t die from ‘Street Hassle’ kinds of dangers, but the universal truths that are played out to the most extreme in the gutters and the streets hold truths for us all.

To wash some of that truth away and help us all breathe a little easier, the final batch of mouth breathers, provide some light and airy relief from the heavy hitters. The Hollies only needed the air that they breathe, and to love you, in a perfect little pop nugget, not even a cigarette, light or sound. The Police are doing a little light stalking in the most romantic sounding exposition and confession of a crime this side of the Tombs at Rikers, while Berlin wants their breath taken away lustfully panting through a very popular and monetarily successful 3 minute ’80s pop song that made the world fall in love with Tom Cruise in a uniform.

We all are panting, screaming, gasping, tantrically breathing, unthinkingly respirating, and breathing our way through life, it is hardly surprising that this most automatic and necessary of human functions has been the inspiration for so many songs. I can only hope that we can all forget a little more about breathing and get on with mindlessly living once again, some day….I’m not holding my breath for an end to all this covid misery, though I might if someone is coughing in the grocery store again. In the meantime…keep on breathing, but keep it masked and over noses in public. Careful with that breath, Eugene, as Floyd might say, we won’t miss it until Van the Man is thowing open the windows and singing an updated TB Sheets whilst promising to bring us a bottle of wine.

Stay healthy!

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