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Chalk Hearts
Marillion: "Kayleigh"
At a dinner, recently, which was suffering from no conversational lacunae but turned to the subject of conversational lacunae as a hypothetical anyway, a friend contributed the following semi-rhetorical question, intended to enliven social gatherings: Are your romantic problems epistemological, ontological or teleological? As is frequently the case, the question is probably more interesting to analyze than to answer, as it implies a) that people are expected to have romantic problems, b) that talking about romantic problems counts as "enlivening", and c) that we have all taken college philosophy courses recently enough to remember what the precise difference is between epistemology, ontology and teleology. I had not, and a quick re-education revealed that over the course of eleven years in which none of these terms have factored into my daily life, I had lost track of how epistemology differs from pedagogy, ontology from taxonomy, and teleology from morality, conflations that are not entirely nonsensical, but are inaccurate enough to keep me from applying them usefully to romance. For those of you similarly estranged from your inner theoretician, epistemology is the study of the nature of knowledge, in which we ask what we can know, and how we can tell the difference between what we know and what we don't know. Thus, in romance, how do we know what love is, and how do we know whether we are in love, or merely think we are in love? Ontology is the breakdown of reality into distinct fundamental elements, or phrased the other way, the building blocks out of which a representation of the world is composed. I suspect the quintessential ontological romantic problem, at least for heterosexuals, is both sexes' tendencies to categorize themselves as people and the other sex as either objects or aliens. Teleology considers the question of purpose. Do we make love, or does it exist on its own and we merely fall into it? If we seek to be as insufferably nerdy as possible, we might also allow for romantic problems to be phenomenological (arising from the experience of love independent of whether it relates to anything in the world), morphological (having to do with the structure of relationships, independent of their function), hermeneutical (flaws in our methods of interpreting relationships), methodological (we approach things incorrectly) or bibliographical (we rely on incompatible sets of reference material). It is possible, of course, to have romantic problems that are biological, sociological, ethical, economic, geographic, linguistic, ergonomic, historical, logistical, paradoxical or simply obtuse, but naturally you and I are above all these.
My own romantic problems, I have decided, are (in addition to all the boring characteristics) historiographical, by which I mean that they are products of the way in which I assemble the internal narrative of my own history, or of how I understand the past, and by extension the present and future. This theory holds that because my primary tool for understanding my life is mentally writing the story it tells, the reason I have basically been single for so long, this time, is that I have gotten too good at writing grand invented histories whose characters the real people in my life are not capable of inhabiting. I write shimmery fairy tales for damsels who have already met other princes, childhood-sweetheart epics for girls I only met as adults, destined-soul-mate melodramas for people whose personality types I don't even know yet. I find myself increasingly attracted to archetypes, to people I know only in limited senses, because it's easier to imagine how they'd fit into my life if there aren't as many variables to account for. This postulate can also be inverted, if you think I've been correctly single all this time, to say that I'm looking for a woman with a strong enough sense of her own personal narrative to be able to write herself into mine, and I just haven't found her yet. I oscillate between the pessimistic and optimistic formulations. And, tellingly, I spend a lot more energy thinking about how I think about the problem than I do addressing it. At many points during the past few years, for example, I would have not been able to list any viable romantic possibilities in my life, but I could always, without a moment's hesitation, have told you my four favorite love songs.
Only one of the four, Modern English's "I Melt With You", is a proper love song, where by "proper" we mean one that you could sing to a lover, one that expresses love rather than describing it. "I'll stop the world and melt with you" summarizes, pretty succinctly, the emotion I'm holding out for, the feeling of wanting nothing but to collapse into someone's arms and ignore the remainder of existence for as long as possible. Elsewhere in the song are some strange passages about the human race having gone by, and Robbie Grey's odd mesh-and-lace fixation, whose symbolic significance I never managed to decipher, but it is, musically, a pop song that lives for the chorus, and so I don't have much trouble glossing over the ominous "You should know better"s and the uneasy past-tense in "Making love to you was never second best" and concentrating on the soaring vow of devotion as if it's entirely unambiguous.
The next most uncluttered of the four is John Waite's "Missing You", in whose chorus he claims he isn't missing her, but this is so obviously false that it comes out as less a denial than an endearment. It is, however, unavoidably a song to a former lover, not a current one. "Missing You"'s mirror image, as much stylistically and commercially as romantically, is They Might Be Giants' song for a future lover, "Ana Ng", which, once you eliminate all the irrelevantly detailed surrealistic nonsense, resolves to a painful syllogism composed of the definitively romantic sentiment that there is one person who is utterly perfect for you, and the blunt statistical observation that on a planet this size you are vanishingly unlikely to ever meet them.
As apt as I am, listening to these three songs' refrains, to conflate admiration with aspiration, in self-aware moments I realize that they resonate, for me, because I believe that they capture their authors' emotional states, not because they express my own. They are helpless love songs, but in my stories I am never helpless, so I am inescapably detached from them. They tell somebody's compelling stories, but not mine. The love song that does tell my story, in spirit if not in details, is "Kayleigh", the closest Fish-era Marillion came to writing a straightforward pop-song. I have acquired, I only just noticed, quite a few versions of this song, enough of them, in fact, to mostly fill a CD with identifiably (however minorly) different variations. I don't mean this as a thought-experiment; I actually made such a CDR. It is fourteen tracks and 55:30 long, and now, in the spirit of mordant obsessiveness and painstaking self-examination, I am listening to it.
1. From Misplaced Childhood (original album version, 1985; 4:01). The history begins, necessarily, with the original album version, on the original EMI CD, possibly (although surely some wishful revisionism is at work here) the first compact disc I heard in its entirety. This version isolates poorly, since the segues out of "Pseudo Silk Kimono" and into "Lavender" are continuous, and the placement of the trailing track index, in particular, is questionable, but that's how I encountered the song, embedded in Misplaced Childhood. It begins with a brief précis of nostalgia, a rush of childhood-crush graffiti, college trysts, flower petals in a market square and adorable confusion (neatly disarming the heroic bluster of "Market Square Heroes", the band's first single). A semester of Form vs Function in Literature could begin here as readily as anywhere. The song is written as a direct address, and Fish follows through on the conceit thoroughly enough that we learn nothing at all, in the course of the song, about Kayleigh herself. Compared to the obtrusive staccato wordplay on the first two Marillion albums, and even elsewhere on this one (in "Heart of Lothian" and "Blind Curve", especially), "Kayleigh" comes off as fluid and unforced, but in reality the meter and rhymes are meticulous, and done for our benefit, not hers, storytelling taking precedence over apology. You could claim that craftsmanship is evidence of sincerity, that he has polished and perfected these lines in order to woo her more effectively. But she knows him, and he knows she knows, and we know they both know: the song is its own self-contained world, and as much of him lives there as ever lived in the world the lyrics recollect.
2. Single Edit (1985; 3:31). I didn't discover Marillion until later, so I missed all the singles the first time around, but I caught up with the a-sides, at least, when A Singles Collection came out in 1992. The single edit of "Kayleigh" trims the opening and closing moments for stand-alone use, but the difference in length comes from the excision of almost all of Steve Rothery's glorious guitar solo in the middle. This is a common strategy, but to me it is almost always catering to stunted attention spans, something I disapprove of on principle and particularly regret here. The guitar solo is an integral part of the structure of the song, an eloquently wordless passage to balance the repetitive "I never meant to break your heart" sections, and a break in the narration exactly where the narrator would want a few moments to meditate before continuing. The Princess Bride notwithstanding (or especially, depending on how central to its aesthetic you consider the paraphrasing of the omitted chapters), reduction is a designer's tool, not an artist's, and if abridgements like this seem more compelling, it's as false and fleeting a victory as the Pepsi Challenge.
3. From Brief Encounter (live, 1986; 4:08). It wasn't obvious yet, in 1986, that Marillion's European success was not going to translate to the US, and they celebrated their 1986 tour opening for Rush with a five-song EP called Brief Encounter. Along with the provocative UK b-sides "Lady Nina" and "Freaks", it had three live recordings from a London show earlier in the year, the title tracks from Script for a Jester's Tear and Fugazi, and "Kayleigh" to represent Misplaced Childhood. Marillion's live versions, in those days, rarely diverged significantly from the studio versions, but for this recording Fish makes what he must have hoped would be a small, instructive exception, turning the microphone to the audience for them to shout the opening "Kayleigh"s in the choruses, to prove that they have taken her into their hearts, that she has become a part of their emotional mythology, even though all they know about her is the vehemence of Fish's regret. "Kayleigh is it too late to say I'm sorry?", he pretends to ask, and "Kayleigh could we get it together again?", but these aren't really questions, or even offers, they're the narrator exploring his own humility, trying to see how far he would be willing to debase himself to get her back, if that were a possibility. Not very far, apparently. Either his pride isn't flexible enough, or he can't muster the suspension of disbelief necessary to pretend begging might work, or he knows that supplication is undignified, and thus self-defeating. Putting the kids on the phone, if they had kids, might work. Putting a thousand sweaty Marillion fans on the line, howling her name, probably won't.
4. From The Thieving Magpie (live, 1988; 3:50). That Rush/Marillion double-bill is one of two tours I'd travel back in time to correct having missed, if we invented time machines but some limitation prevented them from being used for anything historically significant (the other being Black Sabbath and Blue Öyster Cult's Black & Blue tour), but evidently Fish's gruff bluster didn't win over enough of the Rush audience circa the more synth-centric Power Windows, and in the US they never got past cult status. At home, though, they were big enough to justify The Thieving Magpie, a double live album whose second disc featured Misplaced Childhood performed start-to-finish. The audience has no role in this version of "Kayleigh", Fish bouncing restlessly off the walls of the song as if it's already starting to feel claustrophobic. The second set of photo-album memories ("barefoot on the lawn with shooting stars", "loving on the floor in Belsize Park", "dancing in stilettos in the snow") ends with "Do you remember, you never understood I had to go". This is as close as he gets to admitting that the relationship's failure was a mistake he shouldn't have made, rather than a welcome opportunity for him to learn more about himself. He didn't "have" to go; we are not compelled by our natures that way, and if we pretend to be it's a defense mechanism and a cop-out. She understood all too well what his decision to depart meant. By the time this album came out, he had left the band, too.
5. From Misplaced Childhood (remastered, 1998; 4:03). But they've continued, and perhaps most impressively, without malice. The 1998 re-issue campaign treated the first eight studio albums, four with Fish and four without, absolutely equally. The new edition of Misplaced Childhood adjusts the track indexes intelligently, which is a small change but one indicative of an attention to detail, and the major beneficiary of this attention is the remastering. As with Rush's remasters, I thought Misplaced Childhood sounded just fine to begin with, but in an AB comparison with the remaster, the flaws of the original are suddenly appalling. On the new version the bass is more solid, the drums tighter, Fish's singing significantly clearer. Arguably remastering a love song represents dangerously oblivious solipsism, but if the girl is gone, and the song remains, the song is the only part you can improve. "Kayleigh I just wanna say I'm sorry", he claims, "But Kayleigh I'm too scared to pick up the phone / To hear you've found another lover to patch up our broken home." I know, too well, both this compulsion for closure (and in real life closure is always disappointingly partial), and the reluctance that turns apologies into soliloquies. But one of the song's two most important truths is hidden behind this mischaracterization of the narrator's fear. It sounds like he doesn't want to hear that she's found somebody new because it would shatter his dreams of reconciliation, and you might go on to wonder if part of the reason he doesn't call is that he doesn't want to re-impose his unhappiness on her if she's found a way to escape hers, but what he's really petrified of is finding out that for her "escaping" unhappiness wasn't very hard. Her resilience would be an implicit critique of his loneliness, by the object of it (and you have missed a critical romantic's lesson if you still think lonelinesses are intransitive). His image of them together isn't half as precious as his image of them apart, and it's the latter he can't bear to see shattered. And the latter, of course, that he has to shatter, somehow, himself, before he can ever more forward.
6. Alternative Mix (1985; remastered, 1998; 3:59). The remaster's bonus disc also includes the old "Alternative Mix", from the twelve-inch version of the single. My scale for spectacularly misguided remixes has been so drastically recalibrated over the past fifteen years that it's hard to complain about one that mainly just gates the drums a little more and puts the lead vocal through an echo box, but after five real versions, the Alternative version is painfully garish, an embarrassing attempt to transform "Kayleigh" into "In the Air Tonight". Stripping the first few measures of the drum-track down to only kick-drum tattoos is an intriguing touch, but the echoes on Fish's vocals are ludicrous, like he's muttering "But you broke mine" and "Do you remember" as random sonar noises to gauge the extent of some kind of huge unlit metal tavern. He sounds self-centered and maybe crazy, instead of self-aware and melancholy, which is hardly an improvement. On the other hand, the echoes do suggest an acoustic rationale for padding the walls of asylum cells.
7. Demo (1985; released, 1998; 4:06). The bonus disc also has a complete set of demos for Misplaced Childhood, and "Kayleigh" is one of the most revealing. The music, although the performance is predictably rougher, is more or less compositionally complete, and for the first two thirds of the demo the lyrics lack only polish, too few syllables in a few places, a banal "whispers in the dark" to be vastly improved later by the substitution of "on the floor in Belsize Park". At the end, though, the song falls apart completely. Instead of "you never understood I had to go" there's some line I can't totally decipher about a curfew and evading her mother, and then the second chorus is simply a repetition of the first one, which leaves this version of the song abjectly devoid of import, dialectic or movement, a story in which neither of them are emotionally present, so there's no reason to care. If we take this demo to represent Fish's initial understanding of the story (keeping in mind, though, that the second chorus could just as easily have been a deliberate placeholder for real lyrics he knew he hadn't written yet), then maybe his problems are teleological, and the song has a purpose that the events it purports to examine did not.
8. From Sympathy CD1 (live on TV, 1992; 4:04). I might be more inclined to dwell on the missing nuances in the demo, though, if there weren't an even more intriguing transformation in "Kayleigh"'s future. Fish left the band in 1988, and was replaced by Steve Hogarth, a choice both courageous and probably wise because Hogarth and Fish are plainly dissimilar both as singers and writers. Fish was bearish and overwhelming, a harlequin with the temperament of a cluricaune and the body of a frost giant. Hogarth is elfin and coy. Fish wrote intricate, bleary, love-struck poetry; Hogarth's lyrics are reticent and observational. Fish is his own favorite character, Hogarth usually prefers to write about somebody else. Hogarth rarely writes love songs, and I can't think, offhand, of any song in which he states a gender preference. But he joined a band with an existing repertoire and audience, and took on Fish's songs without audible complaint. The closest thing to a studio remake of "Kayleigh" with Hogarth singing is this Argentine TV recording, from part one of the single-set for the Rare Bird cover "Sympathy", one of the two new songs on A Singles Collection. Hogarth is, technically, a much better singer than Fish, and Fish's dense, choppy lyrics don't give him much room to maneuver, but he seems to sense that "Kayleigh" is something he's been entrusted with, and he treats it respectfully, stretching out a little on the choruses, but basically just telling the story the way he learned it. The lines don't fit into the music quite the same way they used to, though, and maybe this is Hogarth's only-semi-conscious rebellion against being forced to sing in a voice he otherwise wouldn't, to tell a story from a life he would have lived some other way.
9. From Sympathy CD2 (live, 1990; 4:01). His feelings seem even more mixed in the 1990 concert performance on part two. The normal-looking running-time on this version turns out to be deceiving, a product of some padding at the beginning and end and a few extra measures in the guitar solo somewhere. The rest of it is noticeably faster than the original, as if the band is starting to lose patience with it.
10. From Live in Caracas (1992; 3:49). By the Caracas show released as the second Racket Records disc (and I've only just started buying these, after a long resistance I'm at a loss to explain, so there are at least three more concert recordings of "Kayleigh" that aren't listed here) they sound really sick of it, and parts of it, especially some of the fast drum bits, are showing signs of serious wear. Rothery's solo is untarnished, but Hogarth is clearly more comfortable satisfying the old-stuff quota with "Garden Party" and "Sugar Mice", and it seems like time to retire "Kayleigh" to our memories.
11. Single Edit (remastered for singles box, 2000; 3:36). The reason the song surfaced out of my memory, years late, to begin with, is that EMI has just put out a shamelessly cumbersome box set recreating each of the twelve Marillion singles from the Fish era on a single slip-cased CD. The music could have fit on three CDs instead of twelve, and it's nearly all on the four bonus discs for the corresponding reissues, anyway, but the physical package appealed to me for precisely its superfluousness, and I've switched to buying all Marillion merchandise on sight as my contribution to their experiment in neo-patronage. I could have held the box in my hands for a few minutes, and then put it on the shelf, on the grounds that the shape is new to me, but virtually none of the music inside is, but I have an obstinate rule that I must play every CD I buy, even if it's redundant. And to my surprise, listening to the box is actually an experience with its own distinctive texture. I only knew Marillion as a singles band in retrospect, and A Singles Collection has just six of these songs, out of chronological order. The box amounts to a bizarre non-condensation of the Fish era that leaves out well over half of the album songs, and yet lasts longer than the four albums did combined. Most of the singles have two or three versions of the title song, and a couple have multiple versions of the b-sides, as well. Three of the four versions of "Kayleigh" are nominally duplicates of ones earlier in this list, but the set seems to have been remastered again, and although under close scrutiny the only difference I'm certain about is that these versions are louder, my subjective impression is that they come out of my speakers sounding brighter, too, more assertive in a way that singles ought to be, compared to albums. And listening to them in this artificial order, after the Hogarth versions, the ones on the singles act as a coda, revisiting earlier themes. The extra seconds on this new single edit come at the end, the artificial fade-out to avoid bleeding into "Lavender" executed with just a few degrees gentler slope, and eleven versions into my "Kayleigh" vigil that has come to matter to me, for the same reason that I stay to watch movie credits. Time-based art imparts exit trajectories, and this is, after all, a song about exit trajectories.
12. Alternative Mix (remastered for singles box, 2000; 4:06). Not only is the fade-out longer on the new Alternative Mix, but it wobbles out of tune at the very end. None of the others do this, even the new versions with same length fade-outs, so mustn't it be intentional? Suddenly I feel like some charm has been restored to this otherwise lamentable version.
13. From The Thieving Magpie (remastered for singles box, 2000; 4:07). The Thieving Magpie didn't get reissued, so this is the first remastering of this version, and the difference is just as striking as on the other remasters, which either proves that the singles were remastered with similar care, or proves that I can't tell the difference between clearer and louder. But maybe you can't, either.
14. Extended Version (remastered for singles box, 2000; 4:02). And in the end the whole box set is justified, to me, by the inclusion of what I will now stipulate is the definitive "Kayleigh". "Extended" is a silly misnomer; this is just the song a) at solo-included album length, b) at single-box gain and brightness, and c) with the finally-perfected first and last notes. Yes, I care too much about details too small, but I am a romantic and a music fanatic, and this is the song and the series of versions of it that may well depict those two aspects of my personality most vividly. I should spend less effort perfecting my representation of my problems and more eliminating them, you could reasonably contend, but I would counter that one is the effort of night hours that can't be applied to the other, and perhaps one is actually the foundation for the other. "Kayleigh", Fish says at the end, long after she's stopped listening, "I'm still trying to write that love song. Kayleigh it's more important to me now you're gone." Worse, maybe the relationship was never anything but a means to the song, and Fish has invented Br'er Romeo. "Maybe it will prove that we were right", he offers, "Or it'll prove that I was wrong". A universe of recombinant logics is coiled up there in a single couplet. Will the love song he hasn't written yet, which this is, prove that they were right to be together, which they aren't, or right to be apart, which he can't stand? Was he wrong to believe that they belonged together, or wrong to leave to her, or wrong to not have written this song, or wrong to have written this song, or wrong to believe that the song resolves anything, or wrong to believe that it's wrong to believe that the song resolves anything, or wrong to believe that it's wrong to believe that it's wrong to believe that it's wrong to believe that it's? The parade of versions of this song form an infinite inward spiral, whirring incessantly and exquisitely and intolerably in my head. Forget historiography, my problems are maniacal, geometrical and self-recapitulating. Like Fish, I have learned to use other people's names as the titles of stories in which the only real character is me. I make the rest of you up, sailors on the seas of the night, only to expend you as metaphor, and write you back out again. And I wait, I guess, for one of you to say something I didn't script, or didn't want, or don't know how to circumscribe. I check my history again, after every drumbeat, to see if you've found a way to rewrite it. I remember everything too well, and dwell in the hope that any moment I will turn out to have been wrong.
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