There are theories about human evolution that explore how, when and why our ancestors started producing art. One of these theories posits that for a large part of our pre-history there was no such thing as art. Early Man’s main focus was survival so artistic expression and appreciation didn’t even register as a ‘thing’. We now know that early Man started cave painting 70,000+ years ago. Expression through art was a massive leap forward in our evolution and it must have started with a single person.
We’ll never know who that person was but I can tell you the exact year, song and band that helped me make an evolutionary leap in my appreciation of music. The year was 1983 and the song was Death and the Maiden by The Verlaines.
As a kid in the 70’s I listened to a lot of Queen, the music really grabbed me but the intelligence in the lyrics were lost on me. When I started discovering music for myself it was punk rock. The energy and brevity of the songs lit my touchpaper and sent me skyward. Lyrics were secondary, I loved to sing a long for sure, but I wasn’t looking for deeper meaning.
This changed in my first year at Hastings Boys High School in 1983 when I heard a new single by a Dunedin band called The Verlaines. Death and the Maiden raised a lot of questions for teenage me. Firstly, who were Paul Verlaine and Rimbaud? Were the band named after this Verlaine guy as they sure sang his name a lot throughout……and what was Death and the Maiden?
The Verlaines were (and still are) fronted by singer/guitarist Graeme Downes. Downes led a band that played songs that were challenging both musically and lyrically, a band that some may have written off quoting the first line of Death and the Maiden:
You’re just too, too obscure for me…..
But this song, it really stuck with me. When I hit the school library and found out who Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud were, about their turbulent relationship and how Verlaine had indeed shot Rimbaud I was hooked. This was not subject matter that featured in other music I listened to, sure, the punk scene was inclusive of all orientations until the boot-boys got involved, but no bands were singing about bi-sexual French Symbolist poets! Add to this the inclusion of Egon Schiele’s Death and the Maiden, a painting of a woman hugging a skeleton, and, well, my tiny mind was blown!
(For more on sexuality in the punk scene check out the excellent I Don’t Mind – Punk’s Gay Underculture article by Steve Rastin on Link2Wales)
This song helped me evolve, to appreciate the entirety of a song, to explore the story and deeper meaning. I love a dumb sing-a-long as much as the next person, but I’m also not afraid to have a song confuse and confound me, to take me on a journey, much as this song did in 1983.
Graeme Downes would go on to become Dr. Downes, lecturer at the University of Otago Department of Music, Theatre and Performing Arts where he would introduce courses in musicology, composition and New Zealand’s first degree in rock music! Throughout all of this he continued to front The Verlaines and release eleven albums and a couple of EPs.
The Verlaines engaged with an audience worldwide and this song would find a number of high profile devotees being covered by Pavement frontman Stephen Malkmus as well as platinum selling NZ band ElemenoP.
This song helped evolve my musical tastes, it may not for you, but keep searching with open ears and maybe we can all make the next great leap forward just like our ancestors did all those years ago.