I’m writing this in December, which generally means Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, the Winter Solstice, New Years Eve and probably a bunch of other holidays I’m ignorant of… are about to take place. It’s the end of the year and the preparation for a new one. In the west, most people are either pulling out their favorite Christmas tunes, or putting on their earmuffs so they can avoid having to listen to them. For me though, in my neverending quest to establish a soundtrack for my life, I’ve decided that Christmas songs should not only be strictly for December, they should be relegated to only the second half of the month. Mind you, I’m not against hearing the occasional Christmas song earlier, but I’m not quite prepared to take an aural bath in the holiday season until it gets a bit closer.
So what then should be the theme for the first half of December? I would say there are two main themes of this time of year. One is questions, as in “what the heck was that year we just had all about?” and the other, somewhat related, is wonder, as in “wow! That year was a trip wasn’t it?” and “Holy crap it’s cold” and “Snow! Yay!” or “Snow! What a pain!” So with those admittedly general themes in mind, I put songs together into a early December playlist (called “Questions” you can find it on YouTube). This year, the song at the top of my list is “When you Sleep” by the band Cake.
“When You Sleep” is a delightful song. It starts off with a bunch of plucky stringed instruments frolicking around a simple base melody that rises and falls in pitch in a steady ebb and flow. The only percussion is an infrequent sibilant brushing. This all evokes the breathing of a soundly sleeping person.
The first line of the song is “When you sleep, where do your fingers go?” And that’s just not something you generally think about, but it’s an intriguing question. Fingers are about grasping things, working with things, and also feeling…in a tactile sense of course, but more metaphorically in a visceral sense. If you can grasp something, you can understand it. You are able, to a degree, to take some ownership of it. But where does this ability go when you are asleep? What can you do? What can you accomplish? What do you feel? And what can you understand when you’re sleeping?
The answer isn’t “nothing.” We dream, even if we don’t always remember the dreams we have. Whatever we may strive for in life, there is something under the surface that we all reach for. What is that?
As the song explores some of these questions more instruments join in, notably the trumpet (played by Vince DiFiore) which plays above the established melody like some winged creature taking flight over the water.
The lyrics continue:
Do they tremble on the edge of the bed
Or do you fold them neatly by your head?
Do they clench like claws against your own skin
When you’re living your day all over again?
What kind of person are you? What are you going through?
The chorus repeats and now there’s a call and response thing going on with the other band members yelling out “When you sleep!” after the lead singer says the other parts. We are fully in the realm of dreams now, what was hidden is now in full view.
Do they play guitar in a Latin bar?
Are they strangers or lovers?
Do they drive your car?
There are a lot of Cake songs about driving and cars. Cake is a great band to listen to on a commute for precisely that reason. Probably their most popular song is “The Distance” which expands on the metaphor of a race car driver (among other forms of conveyance) that keeps going after the race is over. There is also “Satan is my Motor,” “Carbon Monoxide,” and “Long Line of Cars.” Even the song “Dime” has a stanza that describes a dime sparkling among roadside trash under an overpass with afternoon commuters. This fixation on cars probably has something to do with Cake being based in California, which is notorious for its car traffic. Their home base is Sacramento, but of course anyone in entertainment ends up in LA a lot and that’s a city where there’s a lot of driving. Of course people drive in other cities too. I haven’t done any statistical research on it or anything, but there was an Oscar-winning movie (Crash) about how the only way to meet people in LA is to get into a car accident with them. So presumably it’s a thing.
I would say for McCrea, cars are representations of the ego, although a complicated version of the concept. In the song “Satan is My Motor” he talks about how he has “seats that selflessly hold my friends and a trunk that can carry the heaviest of loads,” but that “under my hood is internal combustion power.” So there’s a little id in the idea too maybe. Or at least there is an acknowledgment of multiple facets of being. A car for McCrea, and probably for most people to an extent, is a representation of one’s identity. So are you yourself when you dream? Or are you someone else?
Are they swimming submissively
Sex acts of life
Or just cutting through jello with a very sharp knife?
An interesting dichotomy presented here. Another Cake song “Italian Leather Sofa,” which is mostly a fun romp about a rich couple’s lack of F’s to give, has the lines “she’s got a serrated edge that she moves back and forth/ it’s such a simple machine, she doesn’t have to use force/ When she gets what she wants, she puts the rest on a tray in ziploc bag in the freezer.” Using a knife is being neat and controlling. Everything in its place and organized. Contrast that with swimming submissively, being immersed in emotions or troubles.
McCrea has conflicting feelings about knife wielders, I think. As much as he seems to mock them in “Italian Leather Sofa,” and perhaps “You Part the Waters,” his description of his ideal girl in “Short Skirt, Long Jacket” includes that she “Uses a machete to cut through red tape.” A knife seems to be analogous to control. Are you out of control and passionate in your dreams? Or do you dream of things being easily manipulated?
As if to answer this question, the song then launches into the bridge:
Now Zeus was a womanizer
Always on the make
But Hera usually punished her that Zeus was one to take
At this point I just want to step back a bit and say that there just aren’t that many songs out there that incorporate Ancient Greek mythology into their lyrics. There’s this one and “I’m Your Venus” and that’s about all I can think of. I’m sure there are some out there, but I don’t think any of them are that popular. Thinking of things like Pandora’s box, Icarus and whatnot it seems like an untapped resource.
But anyway, what are we to make of this? How does this answer the question or explore it further? There are a couple ways to interpret this. For one Zeus and Hera could be thought of as two aspects of the same person. That there’s a passionate, boundless aspect and a more controlling, restraining aspect. Similar in a way to the idea covered by Nietzche and other philosophers about the duality of the Apollonian and Dionysian aspects. Apollo represents the light and righteousness, but also rules and order, while Dionysus is darkness and subversion, but also freedom and passion. It also fits an Eastern idea of yin and yang, or the Native American idea of the two wolves in the soul.
Another way to look at it though would be that the singer (which is to say, the “speaker” of the poem of the lyrics and not necessarily McCrea himself) is like Zeus, having his way with women, while the particular woman of the song ( the “you” here) is plagued by some emotional backlash, the “punishment” unleashed by Hera for Zeus’s misdeeds.
Or it could be that the “you” in the poem is like Hera herself, planning revenge against the singer’s exploits.
There’s a prolonged harmony of the question at this point and a musical interlude with more wordless vocalizations. Also, there are some bells in the background, which are a little jingly? Almost Christmas-y. Which is another reason why I think this song fits December. Finally the lyrics continue:
Are they pulling out weeds from the dusty soil
But then never rewarded with the fruits of their toil
Are they scratching their nails on the chalkboards of death
Only seeking attention when everyone in the room has left
I love the instrumentation here with some distorted piano(?) sounds plinking in as if to represent the weeds getting plucked, and then later descending in pitch to incorporate the darker thematic tone of the end of the stanza.
Frustration seems to be the common thread here. I find the “chalkboards of death” line particularly poignant, though. When I first hear it, I think of a Grim Reaper teaching a class or or something, but it’s not Death with a capital D. It’s regular old death. The chalkboards don’t belong to Death, rather they are representations of death itself. A black, blank void. And your fingers, representation of your struggles to feel and understand, are scratching against it. Fighting it desperately. But scratching nails on a chalkboard is something immensely irritating and it’s something you do to get attention. Only there isn’t anyone around when you’re sleeping. You are screaming against the void and no one can hear you, but more than that, you don’t really want anyone to hear you.
In another nuance, it’s not really “you” who’s doing this, but your fingers. So if there’s no one in the room, who are your fingers seeking attention from? That would be…you. Your desire to feel and understand is struggling against the void of death and begging you to pay attention.
Or is it? Maybe you’re just having a good time, flying or being naked or whatever.
The song goes back to the first question, of whether the sleeper keeps their hands folded or if they tremble on the edge of the bed. It’s as if we’re coming back to reality from the world of dream.
Just a great song.
Anyway, these are just my current thoughts. I could be way off base on some things. I hope your December questions lead to beautiful and wondrous answers.