Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Roxy Music -- "Nightingale" (1975)

Before the morning comes
Will I hear your song?
Come little nightingale, 
I won't be here for long

Can you imagine the Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin or Pearl Jam or U2 or the White Stripes doing a song about a nightingale?  I can't.  Roxy Music is about the only band I know that I can imagine doing a song about a nightingale.

The nightingale's song is considered by many to be especially beautiful.  Here's a link to a recording of the nightingale's song.  But what really distinguishes the nightingale from other songbirds is that it sings at night as well as during the day.

A nightingale
Only unattached male nightingales regularly sing after dark.  Why do they sing?  

Surely you can guess the answer to that question.  What motivates lonely males of any species to do what they do?  They are trying to attract a female mate, of course.  Nightingales are no different than men.  

The nightingale has long been a favorite bird of poets.  There's a beautiful passage in Homer's Odyssey in which Penelope compares herself to a nightingale in a conversation with an incognito Ulysses.  Sophocles, Aristophanes, Ovid, Virgil, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, and T. S. Eliot all wrote about the nightingale.

Most of those literary references to the nightingale have their roots in the horrific Greek myth of Philomena and Procne.  According to that myth, Procne was married to King Tereus of Thrace, who offered to travel to Athens to escort his wife's sister, Philomela, to Thrace for a visit.  

During the journey, Tereus was overcome by his lust for Philomela, and raped her.  After the rape, she defiantly threatened to tell the world what had happened, so Tereus cut her tongue out.

But such crimes "cannot be hid long," as Shakespeare said -- "at the length, truth will out."  Although she was unable to speak, Philomela wove a tapestry that depicted her rape and sent it to her sister.  (An e-mail or text message would have required much less effort, but they say a picture is worth a thousand words.)

Appalled and perhaps just a bit unhinged by her husband's dastardly crime, Procne killed their son, cooked him, and served him to Tereus for dinner.

Bon appétit, Tereus!
The gods eventually turned all three into birds.  Depending on the version of the story you are reading, either Procne or Philomela became a nightingale.  (Early writers thought it was the female nightingale who did the singing -- not the male.)

In the most famous nightingale poem  -- "Ode to a Nightingale," by John Keats -- the bird represents an idealized poet, and the bird's song represents a perfect poem.  

Percy Bysshe Shelley also used the nightingale as stand-in for poets: 

A poet is a nightingale who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds; his auditors are as men entranced by the melody of an unseen musician, who feel that they are moved and softened, yet know not whence or why.

Brian Ferry
Roxy Music's lead singer, Bryan Ferry, wrote the lyrics to Roxy's "Nightingale," and his choice of that particular bird was no accident.  Ferry is clearly familiar with the literature of nightingales.

The song begins with the singer calling on the nightingale to begin his nocturnal song (in the lines quoted above).  He then asks the nightingale some questions:

When you're up there flying, do you care 
If there's no one else around?
When your lover leaves you in the air,
Do you waver, do you fall?

The singer has known the feeling of flying high with his beloved, only to be left alone -- left to waver, or to fall.

Next, the singer invites the nightingale to join him in singing a song of lament for their lost loves.  If nothing else, it's a way to pass the lonely hours until the sun rises.  Their only audience will be the moon and the stars -- "They've heard it all before," of course, because what is more commonplace than a lonely man bemoaning his loneliness?  

Now while the moon is high
Shall we, nightingale,
Duet all through the night
A pair of souls for sale
Stars cluster glistening
Captive till the dawn
Patiently listening
They've heard it all before

The music then shifts gears and becomes more urgent.  The singer is no longer addressing the unseen nightingale but speaking to himself:  

Should I stay here or should I go?
I couldn't bear to be alone
Was it really love I saw?
Oh, now I'll never know

The singer has been projecting a clinical, almost insouciant attitude about his solitary condition, but these lines reveal what is going on behind the facade -- he's uncertain and he's fearful.  

But out of nowhere comes the nightingale's song, just in the nick of time:

What is this I hear?
I recognise that song
Sweet little nightingale
I knew you'd come along

The singer's situation has not fundamentally changed.  But he knows that the daytime will bring plenty of distractions if he can just hold out for a few more hours.  He is grateful for the nightingale's company, which will help him make it through the night: 

Soon when the morning comes
We will both be gone
So sing pretty nightingale
Lead, I'll follow on

"Nightingale" is from Roxy's 1975 album, Siren -- the one with model Jerry Hall, Ferry's girlfriend du jour, on the cover.

The song's musical structure is interesting, too.  It starts with an eight-bar acoustic-guitar figure, which is repeated between each verse -- it's almost as if the singer needs a little time to catch his breath and gather his thoughts.

But at the end of each of these instrumental interludes, there's a two-count measure featuring two fortissimo drum beats.  That truncated measure propels the song forward into the following verse before we're quite ready for it.  

The song also features an oboe solo by Andy Mackay, who usually plays saxophone.

Here's "Nightingale":

You can use this link to order "Nightingale" from Amazon:

No comments:

Post a Comment