Friday, July 20, 2007

Here I Dreamt I Was a Soldier..

"And then Neil Patrick Harris says 'What a cougar!'"

About two weeks ago, I was watching that mediocre, paint-by-numbers, probably-robot-written sitcom "How I Met Your Mother." Why? Burnt out from work most days, I find an odd comfort in watching mildly entertaining sitcoms. Something about being tired fries the critical part of my brain, leaving me to just passively absorb.

Towards the end of the show, I heard a familiar jangling guitar riff. After a few moments, I placed it: The Decemberists' "Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect." Since the show had been all about how the main character Ted could use the fact that he was an architect to get any woman he wanted into bed, it was clear why the show had picked the song. I wasn't really outraged when I heard the song; I've heard other Decemberists songs in TV shows and I'm long since over my obsession with the band (Increasingly, I find their costumes and props and silly audience participation bits verging on cartoonish, like a slightly less tongue in cheek They Might Be Giants.)

But when I first heard "Here I Dreamt...," I was in awe. I was a sophomore at the Evergreen State College, working in my free time on a screenplay about mentally unstable high school student who models himself on Jay Gatsby, and the song sent my imagination reeling. The song's archaic language--"balustrade" and "furrowed" and "courtesan"--and its wartime set pieces ("And here I dreamt I was a soldier/And I marched the streets of Birkenau") kept ringing out in my head as I wrote. I had the main character, Sam, spin a tale of how his grandfather escaped a Blitz bomb in London by committing adultery with a nurse at the very time bombs rained down on his home and wife. This act of adultery cursed the man forever, as he had to marry the mistress he thoroughly disliked and lose the woman he truly loved, his only happiness left in amassing a large fortune that the main character inherits. This story is concocted to hide the fact that all the money Sam supposedly inherited actually comes from selling pain pills and weed to businessmen.

Silly as it all might sound, I was euphoric writing this tall tale as I listened to "Here I Dreamt.." on repeat. The song and its characters seem to exist in the ideal version of war, full of colorful characters, bittersweet bar songs, and clothes that high school drama kids covet. If you listen to any recording of Marlene Dietrich singing to the troops, you'll understand the strange feelings of romance that can sometimes surround the past worlds of either world war. As unrealistic and idealized as this fantasy is (knowing you could die any day is bound to suck the "poetry" right out of war, even for soldiers on leave in exotic foreign countries), it's what I tapped into when I heard the song.

Hearing the song two weeks ago, I realized how contrived it could sound. Part of the appeal of singing about soldiers in past wars or pirates or Cold War spies or anything else from the bucket labeled "Past" is the odd sense of innocence those people and places and times seem to retain. When Tom Waits sings about murderous carnival barkers or a man that's just a head who plays beautiful jazz piano, most listeners don't think "Thank God those freaks don't live in my time," they think: "Cool. I wish my life was as weird and exciting as the world was back in the day." The most disgusting spectacle, the most mundane horror, becomes novel and exotic because it's not like our present disasters. As much as I love the album, Neutral Milk Hotel's "In An Aeroplane Over the Sea" can never approach its subject--the horrors of the Holocaust--without a little bit of poetry, a little bit of beauty rubbing off onto it. When Jeff Magnum sings that, though the world would like to see Holocaust victims eyes "filled with flies," he'd "love to keep white roses in their eyes"--is that for their benefit or his?

What I'm trying to say is that maybe having a stupid sitcom ruin what used to be one of my favorite songs is a good thing. Instead of stirring me up with romantic notions of past wars, the song can remind me of boring old now, with its bad presidents and global warming and inane sitcoms I only enjoy because work has worn me out.