How very meta. Here is an ingenious selection of songs I love, written by people I love, about people I love.
PJ Harvey – Memphis
This song is simple, chilling and beautiful. It is classic PJ, but – such is the prolific brilliance of her songwriting – she could still afford for it just to be a B-side to Good Fortune back in 2001. It is a tribute to Jeff Buckley – ‘in Memphis, on Valentine’s Day/You wrote it in a letter to me – but, oh, what a way to go…’ When she invites him ‘if you want to sing, then sing it through me – you’ve got something left to say’ you can believe her and it is joyous.
Cat Power – I Don’t Blame You
This could just as easily be about Chan Marshall herself – ‘you were swinging your guitar around/and they wanted to hear that sound – but you didn’t wanna play, and I don’t blame you. They never owned it/and you never owed it to them any way – I don’t blame you’. In fact, she has recently said that she wrote it about Kurt Cobain. They had much in common, when you think about it, so I’m glad she’s OK. I really, really hope she continues to be. I like to think that’s what this song means – she’s thanking him for making her know better.
Leonard Cohen – Joan of Arc
This song isn’t actually about Joan of Arc. If it was, that would be cool enough. But whenever my beloved L. Cohen mentions St Joan – which he does from time to time, in passing as well as in this dedicated song – he is in fact talking about Nico, of the Velvet Underground. She was just such a… soldier, beauty, battler. With ‘no moon to keep her armour bright, no man to get her through this very dark, this very smoky night’. It is a beautiful three-way love story, between the narrator, ‘Joan’, and fire itself – ‘why, I am fire, he replied – and I love your solitude/I love your sense of pride’. In real life, apparently, Nico wouldn’t even let him take her out to dinner.
Nirvana – Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle
One of the greatest legacies of Kurt Cobain on my own small life is the people he introduced me to, culturally speaking. He was, like me, a total fan and used interviews as a chance to promote the artists he loved. Sonic Youth, Shonen Knife, The Raincoats, even PJ Harvey, all abiding loves of mine that were first tipped off by KC. In film, I vicariously discovered Christiane F and heard the name Frances Farmer for the first time. Of course, I then became as fixated as he was – going to great lengths to read her out-of-print memoir Will There Really Be a Morning? and repeatedly watching the Jessica Lange biopic (just called Frances, if you want to do the same). But this gorgeously sinister song is a great place to start.
REM – Man on the Moon
I went through a weird period of being obsessed with Andy Kaufman. (I really, really love Taxi.) I think so did Michael Stipe, because this is one of two songs he wrote about the man who played Latka. (The other is The Great Beyond.) I love both, and most REM songs, but this is my favourite. It has a really special, subtly melancholy tone to it that makes me all goose-bumpy and teary without fail, even though I’ve heard it a thousand times before.
Joni Mitchell – My Old Man
This is a classic romance song (albeit one with a sad ending), but made all the more interesting to a 60s music geek like me because it is no secret that it’s about Graham Nash. It’s a beautiful song anyway (as is the whole of her album Blue – which would feature heavily on my Desert Island Discs; this hardly needs to be pointed out, but listen to that record in its entirety and it will slay you) but it’s all the more poignant for knowing it didn’t work out. They both wanted it to. He did need a piece of paper from the City Hall; the bed’s still too big, the frying pan’s still too wide.
Hole – Playing Your Song
Another love story with a sad ending, more visceral and more horrific this time – we all know what happened. This is a roar of grief that you so seldom hear, as Courtney is so good at doing – it’s a pop song version of that time she made everyone shout ‘asshole’ at a memorial to her husband, through her tears and her smeared lipstick. The anger is palpable – ‘hey you, don’t you dare blame me! I had to tell them you were gone/I had to tell them they were wrong – and now they’re playing your song’. But what you’ll be left with is the quieter sad truth: ‘now when they call it cool/It’s just so mean and cruel, they sold you out. They bought and sold it now it’s gone/and every note of it is wrong – and now they’re playing your song’.
Sonic Youth – Tunic (Song for Karen)
This is an interesting one. Richard Carpenter (the other Carpenter; this song is about his sister Karen) hated it and had the original video banned (it was directed by Todd Haynes and involved Barbie dolls – I suggest you try and find it and watch it immediately) and it seems too clear-eyed at times to be a ‘tribute’ as such, as there is not a shred of sentimentality there, to either Kim Gordon’s deadpan voice or the slightly too knowing lyrics: ‘Look, Richard! I’m in heaven now – hello, Janis, Elvis… I’m playing the drums again, too!’. But when it gets to the chorus, a repeated dirge of doom: ‘I feel like I’m disappearing, getting smaller every day/But when I look into the mirror – I’m bigger in every way. It says: you aren’t ever going anywhere, you aren’t ever going anywhere, I ain’t never going anywhere, I ain’t never going anywhere…’ it rings so true it’s awful. Even odder, when you think that Thurston wrote it, on holiday with Kim’s parents in the countryside.