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Diversion Enthusiast Society, est. 2007

Overkill River, Or ‘That’s an Awful Lot of Analysis for “Some Mid-Level Band,”’ Part 3

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Calliope in the Bleachers

We forget, at our own peril, what a Muse is capable of being. Granted, the waters have gotten a little muddy, as the Oxford English Dictionary nicely illustrates. On the one hand, the OED notes that a Muse is one of those nine lovely ladies, daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, residents of Mount Helikon. Hesiod named them in the Theogony, heaped upon them stanzas of praise, acknowledging that “they breathed into [him]/a voice divine.” They are the sounds he makes; the very air that he breathes.

But, somewhere along the line, the job description shifted: “A person (often a female lover) or thing regarded as the source of an artist’s inspiration; the presiding spirit or force behind any person or creative act.” While it’s still a flattering position to be in, please note the shift from activity to passivity; from respiration to inspiration. The small-m muse may still be key to the creative act, but all she really has to do is sit there and look nice and/or make the artist miserable to achieve her aims. But even this is an overstatement, in that the muse has no aims to speak of. She lacks intention and autonomy, but, most importantly, she lacks a voice. As the OED tells us, the muse could be a person, a thing, or even an ephemeral spirit that is content to merely preside. Somehow, they have gone from having Hesiod by the throat to being little more than what is required to get the artist out of his comfy chair or off of his barstool. They have gone from being the prime mover to a pretty face.

So let’s consider, O Muse, the ways in which the truly respired gentlemen of Okkervil River sing of those modern Euterpes, the girls with the band, who help with load-in, hang around awkwardly during sound check, know all the words to songs that no one else has ever heard, curb the urge to call down Nemesis on some jerk who doesn’t know basic local show etiquette, haul equipment at 3 a.m., and totally, totally go to bed with the drummer. The female characters in the following songs are not pleasing objects for contemplation, but actors, movers, capital-M Muses, in the oldest, old-fashioned sense of the word. The Muses told Hesiod –

Hillbillies and bellies, poor excuses for shepherds:
We know how to tell many believable lies,
But also, when we want to, how to speak the plain truth.

Theogony, 27-29

And don’t you forget it.

A Girl in Port (The Stage Names)
Virgil invokes Erato at the beginning of the seventh book of the Aeneid, calling her the “Muse of all Desire.” She is traditionally associated with love and erotic poetry. We find her in this song, taking her clothes off for the narrator all over the country. Of the women I will write about here, her manifestations, Marie, Cindy, and Holly most closely resemble groupies in the stereotypical sense, in that it is strongly implied that they sleep with the narrator, a rock musician, when he’s in town.

The  narrator repeatedly asserts that he’s “not the lady-killing sort,” which isn’t necessary, really, as the women he describes seem untouchable. He couldn’t hurt them if he tried, because they do not make themselves available for injury. We’re a long way from “Cherry Pie” here: while the relationship of the narrator to these women seems primarily sexual in nature, what we learn about them isn’t. The narrator is most interested in describing their lives and the things that happen to them when he isn’t around. Moreover, in a motif that reoccurs in Okkervil River’s work, Holly, a soon-to-be-ex resident of Madison, WI, speaks through the narrator. She’s about to embark on her own journey overseas, a noteworthy choice in a song that likens a life of performance to that of a sailor. By drawing such a direct parallel with the overarching metaphor of the song, the narrator places Holly on equal footing. Or, really,  by speaking, she places herself there and, in the process, draws an entire song out of him.

You Can’t Hold the Hand of a Rock and Roll Man (The Stage Names)
Thalia, the Muse of comedy and idylls, manages to claw her way out of Sheff’s throat two-thirds of the way through “You Can’t Hold the Hand of a Rock ‘n Roll Man,” in the guise of a world-weary woman named Marie (the same Marie, I wonder, that we see in “A Girl in Port?”). She speaks to us directly and the joke is definitely, definitely on the narrator, who loses control of his own story when she announces:

“I’m done with looking back
And you look your age
Which is 37, by the way
And not 28
Fucking let them stare
Cause at this point, I don’t care
I have been your bride stripped bare since ’98
And our silver screen affair
It weighs less to me than air
It’s a gas now, it’s a laugh just how far several mil’ can take it”

This pointed, bitter interruption trumps the narrator’s own frank admissions about his lifestyle. In fact, it seems that he is being judiciously critical until Marie comes on the scene and tells us where the truth really lies. She has been around the block and in the company of this narrator for nearly a decade; she has no illusions about the nature and value of her relationship to him. And it isn’t so much that she has given up on him, as it is she has given up on illusion or pretense. She doesn’t care about trivial things like age or the opinions of others. It’s nothing more than a joke at this point and Marie seems to be intent on riding it to the punchline.

Calling and Not Calling My Ex (The Stand-Ins)
Clio is the Muse of history, so it seems appropriate to note her influence in a song about things that have irrevocably passed. Like any good Muse would, Clio has removed herself from the narrator’s life without a backwards glance, transforming herself into glossy paper and television pixels. Our narrator is left to tell us the story of how they fell apart, admitting his own guilt, and wishing her well. She does not speak directly to us, but she walks, flies, shines, demands, and on and on while the narrator can only sit and watch while his life glides by.

Love to a Monster (Overboard and Down EP)
Melpomene won’t be happy until we’re all miserable. She’s the Muse of tragedy, and she’s riding high in “Love to a Monster,” a story about the most vile kind of breakup, the sort where Mistakes Were Made and everyone’s too stubborn to admit it. The narrator keeps making a run-up to an attack on his ex, but all he seems to be able to do is talk about the utter insincerity of such an attempt. He says that he’s destroying any hope of reconciliation, but what he’s really doing, mostly out of boredom, is eying up the pretty thing, the “blonde in the bleachers” in the audience at his show. Is he underestimating her, too? Is he going to end up making the same stupid mistakes with her that he did with poor, distraught Melpomene?

Blonde in the Bleachers (Golden Opportunities Mixtape)
Oh, probably.

Polyhymnia discharges her office with a particular fervor – she is not only the Muse of song and dance, but also of religious song (check the name). She’s Patient Zero in the world of Lead Singer Syndrome. As such, the line between secular pleasures and spiritual passions tend to get a little blurry when she’s around. Here, she speaks through Sheff (by way of Joni Mitchell) in the form of a groupie who is beginning to give up. There is nothing amusing (har) about being Polyhymnia; she can’t laugh these things off like her dear sister Thalia. Instead, she “tapes her regrets to the microphone stand.” The lyrics of this song tell us that someone’s very soul is at stake; this seemingly shallow game of Muse-hopping might be far more dire than Erato would have you believe.

On Tour with Zykos (The Stand-Ins)
Let’s not forget, dear Calliope, poet chosen to lead them all, that, once they wash the smoke out of their hair and put their earplugs away, these women often choose to keep the company of artists because they, themselves, are artists. In “On Tour with Zykos,” our narrator is a woman, heartbroken and positively livid with her musician ex-boyfriend. This song is another possible response to the narrator of “Love to a Monster.” This is the woman he’s left behind for the blonde in the bleachers. The narrative arcs are identical. As was the case in “Love to a Monster,” we understand that the musician regrets the breakup and the jilted female lover is unwilling to forgive him, despite how badly she might want to. Both songs conclude with the image of the musician drowning his sorrows in a physical encounter with a stereotypical groupie. The female lover is left to her fate, which is presented in far more detail here, as this is wholly her song. She’s in her late 20s, has a day job, and, most importantly, is a frustrated poet. In a scene that any creative person will recognize, she avoids her work by getting stoned, watching television, and going out for a drink. The men at her watering hole repulse her which, interestingly, says a lot more about her than it does about them –

I’m discussed with desire
by the guys who conspire
at the only decent bar in town
And they drink MGD’s
And they wish they had me
Like I wish I had fire
What a sad way to be
What a girl who got tired

Note the reference to Promethean fire and the way the metaphor functions, tying the song into a knot: her lust for creative energy is akin to the barflies’ lust for her, which she finds sad. She is, at once, a muse, and desperate for her own, too exhausted and repulsed to do anything about it.

You will note that that’s just seven of a possible nine. I know – they only show up when they want to and there’s not much we can do about it. All we can do is sing of them, first and last, and hope for the best.


Written by Raina

January 21, 2009 at 7:06 pm

3 Responses

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  1. […] and optimistic, though guardedly so.  If the Morning Starship is his artistic inspiration (perhaps Urania, the muse of astronomy, has finally made her appearance?), he’s given himself fully to it.  And as Campbell’s journey begins, Sheff raises […]

  2. […] going to go on stage and sing until he’s cured. But, it’s not as simple as that. Don’t lose sight of Raina’s entry about musicians and their many loves. It’s no coincidence that this sick man is singing about how he does this all for kicks, and […]

  3. Have you ever considered adding more videos to your blog posts to keep the readers more engaged? I just read through the whole article and it was quite nice but since I am more of a visual learner, I find videos to be very helpful. I enjoy what you guys are always coming up with. Keep up the nice work. I will visit your page on the regular for some of the latest post.

    Lai Pressnell

    January 15, 2010 at 3:13 pm

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