music: stupidly great and in love

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Setting up a global guarantee

One of the sweetest love songs is “Wonderful World,” written and performed by Sam Cooke (who rewrote the original Lou Adler & Herb Alpert song). Go listen:

Don’t know much about geography
Don’t know much trigonometry
Don’t know much about algebra
Don’t know what a slide rule is for

But I do know one and one is two
And if this one could be with you
What a wonderful world this would be

Beautiful! The acknowledgment of failure gives the song its power. There’s knowing things which not everyone can do, but there’s also knowing an emotional truth which no one can gainsay. Merely being together would make the world wonderful, with the derivation from 1+1=2 left to smarter minds.

The song doesn’t glamorize dumbness; in a beautiful third musical motif, knowledge is a route to winning love:

Now, I don’t claim to be an A student
But I’m trying to be
For maybe by being an A student, baby
I can win your love for me

Cooke beats himself up some more about what he doesn’t know:

Don’t know much about history
Don’t know much biology
Don’t know much about a science book
Don’t know much about the French I took

This is almost painful to hear, but that punishing enumeration of failure makes what he says he knows in the upcoming chorus unchallengeable. In the second chorus it was enough to be together with the beloved, but that’s not quite enough. He’s completely open and direct:

But I do know that I love you
And I know that if you love me, too
What a wonderful world this would be

He links the undeniable truth of his own feelings to knowing a brave conditional; again the logical proof is up to smarter people. If the song opened with this it would be a weak plea to return his feelings; instead, everything he admits he doesn’t know sets the scene for this to feel like a true statement about the world. Just love him back, not for yourself, but for global nirvana!

Simpleton with untold E-$$$

29 years later, Andy Partridge of XTC wrote a song with a similar basis, “Mayor of Simpleton.” Go listen:

Never been near a university,
Never took a paper or a learned degree,
And some of your friends think that’s stupid of me,
But it’s nothing that I care about

Well I don’t know how to tell the weight of the sun,
And of mathematics well I want none,
And I may be the Mayor of Simpleton,
But I know one thing and that’s I love you

This is a delicious homage to Sam Cooke with the same wistful acknowledgement of no book learning, while knowing the same undeniable truth of “I love you.” But Andy Partridge isn’t as sweet, he’s already set the relationship in a wider social world that Cooke only references indirectly with the implied school setting. Where Cooke offers a conditional wonderful world without exploring it, leaving the music to conjure up sweetness and warmth, Partridge makes an explicit promise in a third musical motif:

When their logic grows cold and all thinking gets done,
You’ll be warm in the arms of the Mayor of Simpleton

Again like Cooke, in a fourth motif the song doesn’t glamorize dumbness. But Partridge goes on to point out the subterfuges he doesn’t have access to:

I’m not proud of the fact that I never learned much,
Just feel I should say,
What you get is all real, I can’t put on an act,
It takes brains to do that anyway

Then “Mayor of Simpleton” goes into overdrive. At the same point in the song where Cooke reuses his chorus to offer a conditional wonderful world for love returned, Partridge comes in low and direct, reusing his opening motif for his own conditional with a completely different allusion:

If depth of feeling is a currency,
Then I’m the man who grew the money tree,

Here I reliably start crying, in awe of the songwriting chops and the emotional depths he’s sounding. He maps love onto an uncomfortable hard axis of money, then immediately and utterly transcends it with the organic mysterious three-dimensional “money tree” he and/or his feelings have grown. Like Cooke’s guarantee of “if you love me back -> wonderful world” , this only works because of everything else in the song up until now; if the song started out “I love you like a million-dollar tree” we’d be left cold.

Again Partridge turns to the smart set he’s up against:

Some of your friends are too brainy to see,
That they’re paupers and that’s how they’ll stay

By 1989 the culture of greed and money was in full swing in Britain, so the allusion is powerful and extends the reach of the song beyond just romance. The personal is political. But when that’s all done you’ll be warm in his arms. One of the best songs of all time, let alone best love songs.

The heavyweights chime in, sort of

Paul McCartney and Sting also tried to link dumbness and love, with Wings’ “Silly Love Songs” and The Police’s “De Do Do Do De Da Da Da.” They acknowledge their difficulty in expressing the wonders of love but they’re too pompous to bluntly state how dumb they are before saying something simple.

Listen to Silly Love Songs:

You’d think that people would have had enough of silly love songs
I look around me and I see it isn’t so
Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs
And what’s wrong with that
I’d like to know
‘Cause here I go again
I love you, I love you
I love you, I love you

It’s a love song that’s also a meta song about songwriting, which inevitably distances it from the emotional lives of us non-songwriters. Like Cooke and Partridge, McCartney says “I love you”, but it’s not struggling against any personal failing beyond his embarrassment at blurting it out.

In a lovely second bridge, McCartney bumps up hard against the problem:

How can I tell you about my loved one
How can I tell you about my loved one
How can I tell you about my loved one
How can I tell you about my loved one

The repetition is magnetic but hold on, McCartney seems to be talking to a different person than his beloved! If only he’d been able to fit “How can I tell you about my love for you, my loved one” into the line, the song would be immeasurably better.

In a marvelous background line as the song rebuilds around its bass line, Linda McCartney alludes to the depth of feeling:

I can’t explain the feeling’s plain to me, say can’t you see

Now he’s bounced the problem to her, but that leaves us on the outside humming along to a song about the incoherent intensity of their feelings for each other. And although no one can blame their inability, not explaining isn’t a patch on having a dunce unexpectedly unleash “If depth of feeling is a currency, then I’m the man who grew the money tree” to leave no doubt.

Listen to De Do Do … etc.:

A reliably gorgeous Andy Summers intro sets up the song. Sting says he’s having trouble, but immediately uses clever talk to reassure us and himself that he’s not to be blamed for inadequacy:

Don’t think me unkind
Words are hard to find
They’re only cheques I’ve left unsigned
From the banks of chaos in my mind

And when their eloquence escapes me
Their logic ties me up and rapes me

(The “rape” talk is cringeingly awkward now, it was merely uncomfortable back in 1986.)

De do do do de da da da
Is all I want to say to you
De do do do de da da da
Their innocence will pull me through
De do do do de da da da
Is all I want to say to you
De do do do de da da da
They’re meaningless and all that’s true

Sting said to Rolling Stone “I was trying to make an intellectual point about how the simple can be so powerful. Why are our favourite songs ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’ and ‘Do Wah Diddy Diddy’?” That’s a noble meta-songwriter aim like McCartney’s, and the song beautifully implies all its nonsense words are just “I love you.” But Sting doesn’t set the translation of his feelings into Klingon subtitles against anything that would give it emotional heft. The wordless instrumental break is an opportunity missed.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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