A Life-Sustaining Dance
By Nick Baxter
Sometime around the beginning of 2011 I was asked by a friend of mine to write an essay for her blog, which focuses on interpretations of hardcore/punk song lyrics. This particular request from her was for a feature she was preparing about the role of women in the often male-dominated hardcore/punk scene. The lyrics she assigned to me were those of a favorite band of mine, Have Heart. I don't think the feature on women in hardcore ever materialized, but the blog can be viewed here.
Name: Nick Baxter
Location: Austin TX
Your relation to hardcore: like a blood brother I talk to every day, but only see on occasion
Favorite lyricist: Brian D. (Catharsis)
Women in hardcore are: crucial for its positive evolution.
Please discuss: Have Heart, "No Roses, No Skies"
"She’s a song unsung
She’s the wild orchid in your ugly swamp
She’s a song unsung
And the only white walls of her mind know what the song sounds like.
The pills, the pills
And Dr.’s promises just ain’t doing the trick
Cause the arm’s of nothing she falls asleep
In can still bring the razor to the wrist
The tv screens, the magazines
Scream at you like the dogs of hell
Advertising and advising you to be
Anyone but your-beautiful-self
Prince charming never brought you flowers,
Just a loveless lifetime all alone
No roses for you, just unknocked doors
And the deafening silence of your phone.
So block your ears, close your eyes,
Remember that you’re a golden soul fallen from the
Boring, heartless, Hollywood herd of lies that they call:
B e a u t i f u l
With no shoulder, no hand, no body, no man, no door,
No heart to let you:
The sun can take too long
To end the endless night
I hear you, I feel you, I bleed with you
When our hearts begin to scream:
This life can feel too long.
But at night you’re dancing through the pain
Even when you’re the only one.
No rose, no sky as full of beauty as the girl who dies
But rises with every morning’s sun,
She dances alone
Alone - so beautiful
Alone - her own romance
Alone - Lady Lazarus’s Life – Sustaining Dance."
These lyrics came as a surprise to me, upon first glance—a pleasant surprise. To see a hardcore lyricist referencing female literary figures and their poetry in order to prove a point to a largely male, largely aggressive audience was a welcome bit of irony and a refreshing contrast. I always thought Pat Flynn’s lyrics were endearing in their raw, no-frills honesty—like only the best hardcore/punk music can be. Yet what may end up making many of them timeless gems is their simultaneous homage to, and referencing of, important themes and influences outside of hardcore.
Here the legendary poet Sylvia Plath, who struggled with depression and ultimately committed violent suicide in the 1960’s, is used as a comparison to the plight affecting many girls growing up in 21st-century America—that of constant bombardment by media and peers to look and feel a certain way, in order to become “desirable” to their peers and secure a romantic partner. For the inevitable many who don’t achieve this standard, one can assume that lonely nights and a sense of diminishing self-worth are the customary rewards reaped, as the lyrics imply.
But despite this bleak, if not slightly oversimplified outlook, the song ends with an emotive ode to the reclaiming of human dignity and self-acceptance. The word “alone” is paired 3 times with phrases of positive connotation, chanted in alternating rhythms as the song builds to a climax, suggesting the simultaneously tragic and triumphant nature of human life. The last words of this song, “life-sustaining dance,” are a powerful slogan alluding to the internal process we all must face, regardless of gender, of becoming our own refuge, our own support system, our own best friend, in order to make it through life’s trials and challenges.
This is an emotional frontier that’s both personally daunting and difficult to discuss openly with others. The vague and uncertain terrain of gaining true knowledge and love of self can make one feel incredibly vulnerable, and it seems few have the fortitude to stare down their deepest fears and trek through it, let alone reference it in a hardcore song. I applaud Pat’s bravery in daring to broach the delicate subject in such an aggressive musical format, to a group of people who, for the most part, seemed to nearly destroy themselves and each other in order to vent their anger every time Have Heart took the stage (as often as possible, I was one of those people).
But, as is often the limitation of the hardcore/punk genre, much attention is paid to our problems and the anger they breed, and very little to useful, practical, and sustainable real-life solutions to those problems. This tendency often serves to merely reinforce and fetishize the negativity we all feel, rather than open up a fresh new space of exploration out of that anger, into uncharted territories of happiness and personal fulfillment that I think we all instinctively crave—or else we wouldn’t have sought out the release that hardcore music can bring, in the first place.
I feel the lyrics of “No Roses, No Skies” fall vulnerable to this trap, despite their admirable closing nod to the intensity of surviving the despair inherent in the human condition known as “growing up.” The lyrics focus on the somewhat naïve stereotype of the young woman as victim, who pines for love and acceptance, who is sad when she doesn’t receive it from “other” and must attempt to provide it for herself. How much of this reliance on a stereotypical portrayal of female life is due to the fact that the lyrics were by an all-male band, in a very male-dominated community, mostly featuring male lyricists? I suppose that’s difficult to gauge, especially with being male myself. But it’s certainly worth pondering because, in a very unintentional way, this lyrical approach risks reaffirming the very social and cultural forces the song is presumably opposed to, by describing the limiting succeed/fail paradigm and stopping short of describing the vast array of possibilities outside of it. Such possibilities as women who come together to form D.I.Y. support groups in their communities for single mothers, high-schoolers who experiment with gender-defying social roles, people volunteering at shelters for abused women and girls, and many other solutions we as a society haven’t even thought of yet because we’re so accustomed to getting lost in our despair about the present moment, in our largely patriarchal society.
I try to imagine a song describing in equal detail and eloquence, what happens after the girl’s emotional rebirth, and what she accomplished with that newfound optimism, confidence, and expanded awareness, as an example for others to follow. What might that sense of freedom and inner peace feel like? Sound like? But maybe that’s part of the “trappings of youth”, and maybe only a much older lyricist would be able to write that song…an unlikely occurrence in the youth subculture of hardcore/punk, admittedly. I wish Have Heart could have stayed together, writing music forever, so we could all grow into that mindset together, through the passionate, inspirational music and lyrics that this band graced us with.
But all criticisms and fantasies aside, it’s important to remember not to get bogged down in hypothetical, intellectual analysis about such specifics as this, lest we forget it’s just a song, and a compelling one at that. I offer these broader questions about the lyrics to “No Roses, No Skies” merely as food for thought and friendly debate, focused on the progression of our scene and community. Ultimately, I revere and appreciate not only the power in this song, but the passion and positive energy in all of Have Heart’s music. The fact that they extended a hand to the female audience as well as donated proceeds to a women’s shelter should serve as positive examples to follow. And I’m not ashamed to admit that the album this track is featured on repeatedly brought me to tears—even this particular song, as I can relate to the longing and gritty determination it describes, regardless of my gender.
This band, and this song, helped many people through a lot of difficult times, we can be sure—a life-sustaining dance. Have Heart’s poetically short existence echoes the life of the very poet who inspired their lyrics, and I find that beautiful and inspiring on yet another level.