Don’t Forget the Songs-365: Mach Dos: Day 277
Monday, Oct 15, 2012
Do you know which Radiohead song did guitarist Jonny Greenwood call, “My favorite song… our madrigal as written by [English Renaissance composer John] Dowland and arranged by Scott Walker?” One of Radiohead’s most beloved songs from The Bends “Street Spirit” is also, according to Thom Yorke, their most misunderstood as he explained, ““Street Spirit” is our purest song, but I didn’t write it—it wrote itself. We were just its messengers. Its biological catalysts. Its core is a complete mystery to me, and you know, I wouldn’t ever try to write something that hopeless. All of our saddest songs have somewhere in them at least a glimmer of resolve. “Street Spirit” has no resolve; it is the dark tunnel without the light at the end. It represents all tragic emotion that is so hurtful that the sound of that melody is its only definition.”
I am one of the many who linked a more poignantly positive memory when listening to “Street Spirit.” I remember living in New Orleans and it was one of those days, I had very little pocket money. It was in the morning and I was on Carrolton Ave. waiting for the Street Car listening to my Discman. When I got on the street car, and sat down “Street Spirit” came on. Outside the street car window, Thom’s lyrics came to life when he sang, “♫ Rows of houses all bearing down on me […] ♫” I loved that moment because it was another reminder musically that I wasn’t alone. That’s what Yorke fails to understand is that his lyrics from “Street Spirit” make us feel less alone.
“Our fans are braver than I to let that song penetrate them, or maybe they don’t realize what they’re listening to. They don’t realize that ‘Street Spirit’ is about staring the fucking devil right in the eyes and knowing, no matter what the hell you do, he’ll get the last laugh…and it’s real and true. The devil really will get the last laugh in all cases without exception, and if I let myself think about that too long, I’d crack. I can’t believe we have fans that can deal emotionally with that song. That’s why I’m convinced that they don’t know what it’s about. It’s why we play it towards the end of our sets. It drains me, and it shakes me, and hurts like hell every time I play it, looking out at thousands of people cheering and smiling, oblivious to the tragedy of its meaning, like when you’re going to have your dog put down and it’s wagging its tail on the way there. That’s what they all look like, and it breaks my heart.”
“Street Spirit” followed the same destiny as Pearl Jam’s “Alive.” Both songs were written with a similar negative meaning. Eddie Vedder talked about, “Alive” originally being a song about, “a teenager is being made aware of a shocking truth that leaves him plenty confused…It was a curse—’I’m still alive.” But Pearl Jam’s audience, in Vedder’s words, “lifted the curse. The audience changed the meaning for me.” But this is nothing new, “Street Spirit” joins The Police’s “Every Breath You Take,”U2’s “One” and R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” in the exclusive club of most famously misunderstood songs in rock history.
The misunderstood meaning was sparked by the last refrain when Thom sings “♫ Immerse your soul in Love ♫” Yorke ends “Street Spirit” in a positive light. If it wasn’t for that last line, then maybe “Street Spirit” would be a very morbid song. But to us that last line gives us belief and that’s all that we ask for from our favorite songs, to give us little melodies of hope even if it wasn’t the intention of Thom Yorke, “Street Spirit” lifts The Bends into the land of immortality by ending on a high note.
Unbeknownst to most, “Street Spirit” was inspired by a novel as Yorke explained when he said, ““Street Spirit” was completely influenced by Ben Okri’s book The Famishes Road, which I read on tour in America; and also by R.E.M.—it was just a straight rip-off, you know. I’ve ripped them off right, left and centre for years and years and years.”
Regardless of where “Street Spirit” came from or Yorke’s original intention, this climatic song from The Bends will remain one of the most beloved songs in Radiohead renowned song canon. Yorke once admitted, “Some of it might have been about me, but I’m over that now.” Luckily, I don’t think we’ll ever get over the majestic beauty that is “Street Spirit.” Enough with the chatter, it’s time to go back and take the ultimate music trip with Radiohead—as the chords from “Street Spirit” begin, like a concrete kiss—when Yorke sings, we’re already there. For all you curious “Street Spirit” virgins—press play, before you fade out again.