The world teaches us to think that life is full of limitations
The world tries to make us think that there are loads of limits
— “Conditioning,” Howard Jones
Two things happened in the world of music during the week of March 23, neither of which had anything to do with one another - unless you happen to live in my head.
Zayn Malik left One Direction, a band I do not listen to. And I went to see Howard Jones, a musician I fervently listened to when I was the median age of most of 1D’s fans.
In this column, I generally address great (and poor) writing on TV and in movies. But when I was a teenager, all the words in the world that mattered to me came not from TV or movies - or even books. I was voracious in my consumption of of music and spent hours flipped on my stomach in our living room parsing the lyric sheets of albums by my favorite artists, explicating every line for deeper meaning.
Music lyrics do that to us. The music is the bird that pokes holes in our conscious; the lyrics are the seeds it leaves behind, and they flower all the rest of our lives. My mentors never spoke to me directly, but left behind legacies of words put to a good beat you could sometimes dance to that still conjure up adolescent memories even today. When I was 14 and 15 and 16, I wanted someone to give me guidance about what the hell was going on in the grown-up world, and pop tunes did that for me.
Here I come now got no time to frown
Nothing in my way now nothing can bring me down
Feel that surge open the doors around
Higher and higher the world is my hunting ground
— “Hunt the Self,” Howard Jones
So 1D fans, I know none of your band’s lyrics and can hum none of their tunes, but I feel your pain: Your bedrock is crumbling and everyone around you who isn’t a fan is laughing. I’m way, way old and I’m not. Because I remember that whether the words are deep and meaningful or shallow and simply-rhymed doesn’t matter; as long as you’re listening to them, they are the scaffolding on which you are hoisting yourself to the next stage of life.
I listened to a lot of bands and took in a lot of words in those formative years. Howard Jones was never No. 1 on my top list of bands but I put him quite high up in a rarefied position, thanks in part to the words he wrote - he was a guru to me. Legendary rock critic Robert Christgau may have vilified Jones’ first album Human’s Lib for being self-help twaddle, but I wasn’t listening to it as a grown up; I heard it as a kid.
So when I listened to some of those songs all over again some 30 years after hearing them for the first time in New York City the other night I confess: I took a little side trip in my head and remembered all the things I had learned from my guru, and the places those lessons took me.
Places like these:
- Veganism and Taoism.
Howard Jones was the first person I ever heard of who was full-on vegan. He did it hard-core in the days before the world ever heard of a Boca Burger and even wrote songs about the cruelty done to animals in the name of feeding humans (“Assault and Battery”). So I went vegetarian. And had some eggs. And fish. OK, I was terrible at being vegetarian, but it was a blow for independence at a young age.
In addition to being a vegan, Jones referred both directly (with a B-side song title) and indirectly to the Tao Te Ching, a religion/philosophy/book/way of thinking I’d never heard of before. I still don’t know if I fully understand what “the way” really means, but it has a lot to do with letting go and understanding that you are just a speck in the river that carries you along.
I’ve never met Jones (other than waiting hours in line outside Tower Records in 1985 only to have him sign my “Things Can Only Get Better” 45 record sleeve “To Mandee”), and it’s not important that I do. But early on in my journalism career, I interviewed him over the phone - in the most irritating way possible. I peppered him with dozens of nerdy fangirl questions until he finally asked, “Do you think we’ll talk about the new album soon?” which was of course why we were here in the first place. I went scarlet. I scrambled, recovered, did the job I was supposed to do and learned a hugely valuable lesson. You really do often learn best from your mistakes.
When I went out to visit a friend of mine I’d been pen-pals with since she moved away after we were in kindergarten together, I was 16 and crushing hard on a guy in school who was still two years from coming out of the closet. He gave us ladies some hope by, well, dating us - but we knew the truth even if we (and he) didn’t want to admit it.
Meanwhile, my pen-pal had begun a deep dive into evangelical Christianity, and when I told her about my hopeless devotion to my uncertain friend she became first sincerely concerned for my soul. Then, when she couldn’t convince me to abandon my friend, she wrote me a letter quoting the Bible extensively and explaining that she could no longer associate with me.
It begged for a response. So I went to a different bible for my recourse: I shot her back the last letter we ever exchanged, covered with my own favorite lyrics about equality, tolerance, what is natural and what is not - Jones’ lyrics.
I have always felt good about that.
You don’t know
I don’t know
This is an answer to every question
This is a place to begin
— “Always Asking Questions,” Howard Jones
It’s easy to mock pop lyrics. Easy to say Taylor Swift’s words are all about the same thing, or that the guys in One Direction don’t even write their own lyrics. But teenagers don’t care - they’re still listening hard, still using those lyrics to ascend into adulthood. Pop singers, rock singers, rap singers - those are the grown-ups kids listen to; they are their teachers as much as, if not more than, the ones paid to instruct them in school.
Awards strictly for lyrics don’t exist, so far as I know. Songwriters get prizes for the combination of words and music, but that’s a significant difference. And lyric writers, the good ones, really should get some recognition for a clever rhyme, the hidden pun, the evocative image. A well-turned lyric, aimed at the right person at just the right time, gets under the skin of even the hardest-to-reach young people. That’s a rare power that deserves respect - and love.
So thanks, Howard Jones. You weren’t the only musician who raised me into adulthood, but you were a significant player in the group. Long may you - and the beautiful simplicity of your words - reign.
Did a music lyric ever change your life? Let us know about it here!