b/w Dead End Job
A&M: AMS 7381 (blue vinyl)
Released: September 1978
Packages begin to arrive. I open the first cardboard envelope and there he is; a man with a noose around his neck, stood on a block of ice that's been strategically positioned close to the red glow of an electric fire. Inside that sleeve is the blue 7 inch disc, just as I remembered it. 'Can't Stand Losing You'; that seems as good a good place as any to start, I suppose, especially if your theme is loss. I had planned to work my way down the list methodically, but instinct and impulse have somewhat taken over and this one seemed to call the loudest; I succumbed to the siren call of that long-lost pellucid polo mint stained a Quink permanent blue. Perhaps this disordered, groping anti-method is better anyway; more in keeping with the vagaries of my fraying memory...
For a band who achieved such enormous worldwide popularity with their accessible 'white reggae' style, the songs of The Police mine a surprisingly dark seam. Prostitution ('Roxanne'), paedophilia ('Don't Stand so Close to me'), brooding sexual obsession ('Does Everyone Stare?', 'Every Breathe You Take') and the essential loneliness of existence ('Message in a Bottle') provide the subject matter for their best (and, by and large, their best known) songs. So 'Can't Stand Losing You', an exploration of the psyche of a (possibly potential) suicide fits quite snugly into the band's bulging boxfile of case studies in which they chart the dysfunctional mechanism that is the human mind.
We know we've got a case on our hands pretty much from the off. The steady skank of the song's opening riff is almost immediately disrupted by Stewart Copeland's ominous off-kilter tom-tom thumps which provide an early hint of the mental instability that will be revealed later in the song. It's rather like the sound of someone banging their head repeatedly on a desktop before running into a school with a machine gun and opening fire indescriminately. The jilted lover has tried all the usual stuff; persistent phone calls, first to his ex- and then all her 'girlfriends' - at least, I'd always assumed that the injuring party was female, until I listened closely and realised that at no point is the gender of the one who does the dumping specified. The only clue that it is probably a female is the (still fairly ambiguous) use of the term 'girlfriends', as opposed to just friends; a choice that was most probably forced upon Sting by the imperative of jemmying the line to scan.
Whatever her or his gender, things have got so bad that the unfortunate recipient of all this no longer required attention has had to rope in a very big brother to help them out. Letters and records, the latter - and this shows just how bad things must have got - 'all scratched', have been returned but the singer still isn't taking the hint. He may think he is in the process of losing a lover, but as far as the other party and the listener are concerned, this one appears to have been lost quite some time ago.
Then, a moment of unexpected clarity amid all the derangement; one of Andy Summers' ambient guitar interludes where you'd normally expect to hear a solo. His eureka moment arpeggios are effects pedal-drenched and jazzy, providing an oasis of calm in which the enormity of the decision to be made is weighed up by the protagonist. It's a no brainer, announced as calmly as a break for coffee. One loss will be repaid by another, one from which there will be no redemption and no way back. Because as he's already told us, 'to carry on living doesn't make no sense' to the song's narrator. The desperate mathematics of the prospective suicide find a subtle echo in that double negative as if two wrongs really will somehow add up and make a right in the distorted logic of the pained mind. But then there's never just one negation when it comes to suicide; there's always more than just one loss, always more than one who loses.
Sting's insistent, monotone bass, Summers' unswervingly sustained high guitar and Copeland's patient drum pattern crank up the tension beneath the valediction, an arrangent as tight and menacing as the lips spitting out this vindictive 'last goodbye';
And you'll be sorry
When I'm dead
And all this guilt
Will be on your head.
That 'you' feels more direct, somehow, listening to it now. Suddenly you find you have been implicated in all this madness. It was not some abstract, genderless and spurning lover in some silly little new wave song who didn't care enough, but you. You didn't care enough, so someone died.
Great pop songs - singles, to be more specific, I suppose - allow us to superimpose our own lives on to them. Perhaps the brevity and the ephemeral nature of the format allows this more readily than other more earnest and lengthy artforms. Songs multiply their meanings as our experience of life deepens. It's a trivial form, perhaps, and so not always ideally suited to the grand subject. But then, you could write several novels set in pre-World War II Europe and never match the emotional whack and resonance of these few lines from a simple popular song from that momentous time:
There may be troubles ahead
But while there's moonlight and music
And love and romance -
Let's face the music and dance!
The whole impending catastrophe of the second World War seems to be contained in the oh-so-delicate embrace of those few words. And isn't there a wonderfully liberating contradiction expressed in that last line?; "let's face the music and dance". If you read that facing of the music - as perhaps you're meant to - in the sense of confronting an unpleasant reality, or even, perhaps, accepting responsibility for an error one has made, then it seems incongrous to do so whilst indulging in the hedonistic escapism of a dance. But that is exactly what the dancer and the listener alike are invited to do. The song asks us to face the music and to dance; to confront the grim reality whilst simultaneously averting our gaze and seeking pleasure as a relief from the very same actuality. But then, isn't that the beauty of art?; that it doesn't feel the need to reconcile the contradictions that we come across in life and appears happy just to play with them or point them out. So, like that couple on the pre-war dance floor, we are able briefly to look upon the horror even as we make our glides around the floor and look away.
We've all broken up with people, have all wanted someone more than they have wanted us, been wanted more by others than we have wanted them. We might have bombarded them with phone calls for a while, or they have us; perhaps even done the rounds of all their friends, or they of ours. We may have returned or had returned once precious mementoes to or by our erstwhile lovers, whether having damaged them or not. Or perhaps we or they went one step further, and kept them for ourselves? Most of us have quite possibly felt at one time or another that we "can't see the point in another day". But most of us don't end up taking our own lives.
I had a friend who did. Most of the time you wouldn't have known that this friend suffered from periodic (and, as I later discovered, ever-deepening) bouts of depression. You'd spot the odd sign of obsessive-compulsion in those frequent visits to the ladies' room during which, I'm told, there'd be much over-zealous washing of the hands. You'd probably assign to the martyrdom of those excruciating period pains you knew she suffered from, that feint, slightly unhinged undertone that would occasionally come to the surface every second or third particularly hellish month or so. Perhaps, after all, you didn't really know her as well as you thought you did. But then it would have been hard, surely, for anyone to reconcile that gloriously giggling girl who comes most readily to mind, the one who could sing 'Ten Green Bottles' in fluent German through the madcap, tucked in two at the middle laughter, with someone who would one day take her life.
But she did.
And was she thinking this all that time?:
And you'll be sorry
When I'm dead
And all this guilt
Will be on your head...
You can't ever know what was going through their minds as they approached the point of no return, can only take a best guess as Sting does in the song. And unlike the successful suicide, we can play out that same scenario as often as we like when we come back to play that luminous, translucent record. A rediscovered piece of blue about those blues that for some can't be resolved.
L.U.V. on y'all,
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