by Ryan Adams and Richard Causon
I wish I had a Sylvia Plath
Busted tooth and a smile
And cigarette ashes in her drink
The kind that goes out and then sleeps for a week
The kind that goes out on her own
To give me a reason for well, I dunno
And maybe she’d take me to France
Or maybe to Spain and she’d ask me to dance
In a mansion on top of the hill
She’d ash on the carpet and slip me a pill
Then she’d get me pretty loaded on gin
And maybe she’d give me a bath
How I wish I had a Sylvia Plath
And she and I would sleep on a boat
And swim in the sea without clothes
With rain falling fast on the sea
While she was swimming away, she’d be winking at me
Telling me it would all be okay
Out on the horizon and fading away
And I’d swim to the boat and I’d laugh
I gotta get me a Sylvia Plath.
||In an interview in September 2001 with Rock’s
Backpages magazine Adams had the
unabridged journals of Sylvia Plath, the American
poet who committed suicide in 1963 aged 30, open on the bed beside him.
Adams is one
for heroes; he recently wrote ‘Song for Keith’ dedicated to the Stones’
guitarist. He also has aspirations as a writer, and is working on a play
called ‘Sweetheart’. In ‘SYLVIA PLATH’ his desire for critical acclaim
and a soulmate combine, in a flirtation with posthumous fame.
The song begins with a desire for something that is not attainable, a
‘Sylvia Plath’. The rhyme of the first line is like a spell – Remember,
remember the 5th of November. Plath’s name itself conjures intense feeling. Her life with
Ted Hughes is the stuff of myth; as half of a doomed romance, documented
by Hughes in Birthday Letters,
Sylvia Plath is a loaded name. Adams’ lyric is extraordinarily intimate
however; more so certainly than Peter Laughner’s
tribute ‘Sylvia Plath’ with it’s candid documenting
of her suicide and the offensive line that the details around her suicide,
in which she protected her two children, are ‘too boring to attach’.
Adams desires a woman who is
independent and has a lust for life. But the line ‘The kind that goes
out and then sleeps for a week’ becomes more sinister as one considers
how, following a suicide attempt in 1953, Plath
was ‘out’ for two days in a crawlspace before being discovered. More specifics
arise in the chorus, in the mention of France and Spain, where
Plath holidayed with Hughes in their honeymoon
summer of 1956. The dark mention of gin and pills, staples of the rock
star life, recalls the anti-depressants of the mid-1950s poet. Plath’s
life is a tragic myth yet Adams won’t
leave it well alone. The title, in capitals, resembles a gravestone. Far
from trading on her suicide chic however, Adams imagines
being with Plath personally to the point of
imagining a ‘she and I’.
So why should Adams empathise
with Plath specifically? Early death has accompanied
rock and roll from the beginning. ‘Everybody wants to live forever / I
just wanna burn out hard and fast’ he sings on ‘Firecracker’, also
on Gold, a similar defiance
to her ‘busted tooth and a smile’. Adams admires
her intensity and defiance, but her nakedness and vulnerability are also
qualities that he possesses, most explicitly on his first solo album Heartbreaker. People associate with Plath because she was human, a mother as well as a single-minded
artist who was original and successful without selling out.
In this respect, ‘SYLVIA PATH’ is Adams’ Mr
Tambourine Man’, a plea for a new muse. On Gold,
it follows the put-down of ‘Nobody Girl’. Plath
represents artistic immortality as surely as Hank Williams (in whose ‘Mansion
on the Hill’ ‘she’d ash on the carpet’). Thirty years after her death
Plath acts as an inspiration to others, like a Siren.
Letters suggests the fate of Hughes and Plath
was poetic, and their marriage is a unique thing in literature. In
poetically, the tragic element enters at their most innocent, vulnerable
moment as they swim naked in the sea and the rain begins to fall.
What was all a fairytale fancy, the ‘Maybe…’ and ‘I wish…’ and the
piano lilt, turns sour, the piano of Richard Causon,
Tom Petty’s keyboardist, swells and builds like the sea, spreading
like ripples, inevitable and tragic.
Plath was brought up beside the sea (as
recounted in ‘Ocean 1212-W’) and it seems she is in her element, complicit
in her fate, an enigma to Adams. Even as she disappears
over the horizon she winks. Adams swims
to the boat, safe and laughs (perhaps having written his next song).
In all their time together they don’t exchange words. How could they?
He will never get to her, unless it is by achieving what she achieved.
The dark humour of the song is bittersweet.
Hers is a corrupted beauty that is already doomed; her busted tooth
and the cigarette ashes in her drink are like the flawed iris of Evelyn
Mulwray in Robert Towne’s Chinatown. The dirty rhyme of Plath and ‘bath’ point
to a mismatch of aspiration and result. Part of the eeriness
of the song is knowing what happened. Adams projects
a future onto someone we know has none, except as a posthumous influence.
In ‘A Short Film’ from Birthday
Letters, Hughes writes ‘It was not meant to hurt’.
It is a measure of the lyric’s success that it bears comparison with
Hughes’ poems. Hughes was left with ‘The flip of an ocean falling
dream-face down’. Adams demonstrates
that being inspired and open is to be vulnerable, yet it is worth
it to be touched. For all her tragedy, Adams sees
fulfilment in Plath’s life, a happiness in having achieved her aims. Suicide apart, he
desires a similar end. His previous band, Whiskeytown,
split when he decided that ‘it wasn’t a place to live’.
of Never-Never Land fantasy with a harsh reality is
reminiscent of Philip K Dick’s description of the high toll of drugs
on his friends in A Scanner
Darkly; ‘we were like children playing in the road’. Adams is unrepentant of his methods, but it seems a high
price to pay.
© Matt Bryden 2002