The Infinite Jukebox: Syd Straw’s ‘CBGB’s’


I don’t usually do visual all that much with songs. All my life I’ve connected sound with colour, in a quasi-synestheisiac manner, hearing differing sounds in different shades both of light and dark and across a somewhat limited colour palate. I don’t know if anyone else does that or, if they do, if their notions of musical colour come anywhere near echoing mine.
But in terms of what form of music video might go with a particular song, I’ve always been happy to let the imagination of the band or singer, or more probably their video director come up with something to illuminate the record. Like I say, in that respect I don’t really do visual with music. This song is a great exception.
A long time ago, I wrote about the song ‘Love, and the Lack of it’, by Syd Straw, from her second album, War and Peace, a surprise discovery just before Xmas 1997. I mentioned in that post that it was one of the two standout tracks on the generally high-quality album. It’s successor track was the other and this is it, ‘CBGBs’.
Musically, the two songs couldn’t present a bigger contrast, ‘Love, and the Lack of It’ being a slow, moody, downbeat song with minimal instrumentation for the most part, and ‘CBGBs’ being an uptempo, full-throttle charger, starting with slashed and ringing guitar chords before picking up an energetic beat, courtesy of Straw’s backing band for the album, a bunch called The Silhouettes (but not the Northern Soul favourites).
Straw’s song is about time and its passing, the changes it brings to us, our dreams and our (implied) failure to live up to them, yet containing in it the kernel of optimism that there might yet be time to fulfil even a single one of them. It comes in the form of a monologue, a barrage of questions and reminiscences tumbling out of Straw without her re-discovered friend having the chance to get an answer in edgeways.
“Hey,” she begins, bringing us into the moment with concision, “do you remember me? We met ten years ago, at CBGBs on New Year’s Eve.” And immediately we know that, whether or not he remembers, and maybe more likely not, she remembers, and remembers too well and too fully.
Back when you were tending bar, you had a band of your own, called the Revlons, and I liked your songs. It was only a fleeting acquaintance, and Syd blames herself for it ending, an abandonment like that was easier then. She must have lost her head, and she doesn’t know why they never met again, until this moment a decade later.
The music surges and charges, full of life, in complete contrast to the words. For Syd is now lost in the past, in what was and wasn’t. She asks if he remembers taking her to see ‘Soylent Green’ at the pictures, but again before he answers she rushes on, can’t believe it was such a long time ago. But this meeting isn’t maybe as accidental as she makes it seem, she hasn’t totally been unaware of him and where he was and what he was doing, because she’s heard he’s had twins…
And then it comes, the real questions, the seeking of information not recollections, the chorus: Are you doing what you wanna do, did you follow your intentions, all the dreams you had, has even a single one of them come true? Why is this suddenly so important to her, especially as she quickly gets defensive about her enquiring: I ask myself as I’m asking you, hey, I’m just asking.
Yes, the longer this song goes on, the greater the depth that is coalescing beneath it. For now though, Syd swings back to reminiscing, full of what was and would be then that we’re beginning to understand all fell apart. You were the one most likely to succeed without trying, you had so much to live up to…
Is she challenging him? Is she implying that he, the best and brightest of them then, a them that was more than just him and her, he’s let them all down? That what he is is just not good enough? It seems unusual for her, but wait. For a moment, the gush ceases. Syd turns from him to herself. After all, she has undergone ten years herself since that time at CBGBs. What’s gone on with her?
And suddenly the deep waters the song has been flirting with turn into the Marianas Trench. I was married for a while. It ended in tragedy. Oh well, enough about me. That’s all you get. Her eyes turned inwards are blank, and she will never speak of it again. Suddenly we understand, as well as we will ever be allowed to, why it’s so important that she’s met him again tonight, that he remembers who she was and who she might have been.
That demand to know is even more urgent, the desperation to know that he’s had it better than her. Are you doing what you wanted do, did you follow your intentions through, all the dreams you had, has any or all of them come true? And if it hasn’t been so, she pleads, If they haven’t yet, I hope they do. Hope springs eternal, but hope is all there is.
Such a desperately sad and sorry song, propelled by all the urgency and buoyancy The Silhouettes can manage and that’s plenty. The marriage of opposites, once again creating a surge of energy.
But what has all of this to do with my building a video to accompany the music? It was an image that came to me as soon as I’d heard the song enough times to get a proper handle on it. But imagine if you would an underground club, a bit grimy, pretty small, crowded. We’re looking across at an angle, from almost behind the bar. Syd, in the Russian hat and costume she wars on the cover is sat at the bar looking past us. At first she has her head turned, to the stage, where a band, a tight band fronted by a woman, dressed the same as her, because it is her, she’s at both the bar and the mikestand, are starting a song with ringing chords.
And as the Syd on stage begins to sing, the Syd near to us turns and begins talking the lyrics, excitedly, passionately, her face acting out all her emotions, desperately trying to keep our attention on her. One camera angle on her throughout, and only when the song reaches its instrumental break to we shift across the club to focus on the band, and even then with intercut angles showing Bar Syd still in her seat. Only in those moments to be we see who she’s talking to, and then at too much of a distance to see his face or anything but the nondescript clothes he’s wearing…
That’s how I would have handled it, and how, over twenty five years later and only one more Syd Straw album since. I can still see into the past, the same way Syd does in her song, but without the pain it brings to her.
This song should be known world-wide.

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2 thoughts on “The Infinite Jukebox: Syd Straw’s ‘CBGB’s’

  1. OK, you just blew me away. I know that I missed your earlier column on Syd Straw (I don’t think that I was following you yet), because I am a huge, huge fan. I saw her live multiple times with The Golden Palominos, Peter Blegvad & leading her own solo band. She is a remarkable singer and songwriter, and her lack of more recent output is a condemnation of the entire industry. Her 1st album is very good, but War and Peace is one of the greatest singer songwriter albums ever. She sang a cover of Mission of Burma’s song That’s When I Reach for My Revolver over the closing credits for Stacy Cochran’s great 1992 film My New Gun (starring Diane Lane). I have the movie on DVD, but I have searched in vain for an audio copy. The industry has not done well by this great talent.

    1. Agree with you entirely. Bombing down to Nottingham on a cold, crisp, clear day with great song following great song was only marginally less thrilling than a massive away win.

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