ALSAP #1: “Stand Beside Me”

Howdy, buckaroos, and welcome to the first entry of my Asinine Love Song Ananysis Project (or ALSAP, cuz it’s all sappy, all the time). I know you were all hoping I forgot or got too embarrassed, but no such luck. It’s February, after all. Consider this my absurdist Valentine to you.

Today’s inexplicably awesome love song is “Stand Beside Me” by Kansas. Itunes says I’ve listened to this song approximately 40 billion times, mostly while writing (although I’ve been known to have it on repeat while walking the dog).

Take a moment to have a listen (at the above link), or this post is going to get real pointless, real fast. I recommend skipping the video,  though, which is full of motorcycles and feral 80s women. I don’t even know what they’re supposed to be doing. I assume the bikes at least are there because the song references the book Rumble Fish, but who can say. That’s not what this song – music or lyrics – ever made me envision, so I find the imagery jarring.

Those of you who are Kansas fans are alternately shouting, “Woo-hoo!” and “Huh?” I realize this song is an odd choice, and a little obscure even by Kansas (the band) standards. It’s from In The Spirit of Things, an underrated and interesting album inspired by a small Kansas (the state) town that was flooded in the 1950s. The 50s motorcycle/greaser imagery in the video, I suppose, is not completely inappropriate. I had ascribed a more esoteric meaning to the song, however, because the album has “spirit” (in various connotations) as a unifying theme. For me, this always sounded like a love song to – or possibly from – a ghost.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Musically, this song is the perfect (Rachel) storm. If you wanted to scientifically create a song that I will not get tired of easily, this is how you do it. It starts out with a keyboard ostinato, which is joined after a few measures by a complimentary ground bass line. I find it suggestive of Baroque music, something Kansas dabbles in habitually; they’ve done songs incorporating fugues, f’r goodness sakes. If you listen carefully, you can follow both riffs throughout the entire song, sometimes alternating, sometimes chiming in together, underpinning the melody and giving a sense of movement. The keyboard line (sometimes augmented by guitar) crackles and shimmers, while the bass line is deep and melancholy; they make me think of fire and water.

So ok, I’m a sucker for the ostinato. The second component of the Platonic Form of a Rachel-Song is a good singer, preferably male, preferably one with an excellent high range. Kansas has a mighty fine countertenor in Steve Walsh. Just to be clear: it is very silly to call him a countertenor. Stylistically, no, he’s not (although he does cop a sweet falsetto there at 2:20). It amuses me to apply classical music terminology to rock; I will call any male singer a countertenor who has the same vocal range as me.

Strong voice is crucial, but equally important is its interactions with the instruments. If I just wanted a high-pitched 80s balladeer, there are plenty of others to choose from (Steve Perry, Steven Tyler… SO MANY STEVES). Steve Walsh’s voice is great, but it’s part of the whole. He’s not just a soloist belting it out over an insignificant continuo. That’s important to me.

Third: I like good lyrics and I can not lie. Lyrics are the weakest link in this particular song – there just aren’t that many of them, for starts – but they’re not terrible. They’re peculiar enough to be interpreted a number of ways, and that keeps me busy and interested. Here’s where my “ghost song” interpretation comes from: there are numerous references to death and mortality. Drowning, poison, survival, and of course the bizarre and gruesome “flesh on a neon sign.” What the hell is that? The first time I heard it, seriously, I pictured a butcher’s and hunks of meat – possibly even body parts – dangling from the signage. Ew. I suspect that’s too literal, though, and that it is in fact an oblique reference to the album’s overarching preoccupation: spirit. We are bodies illuminated from within, and that illumination is not just light but a message.

“Take this heart of mine” suddenly has a double meaning, eh? I won’t pretend it hasn’t occurred to me to take THAT literally, too.

Images of fire and water also pervade the lyrics. There’s a flickering candle, “brighten up my life”, rooms too hot for the human touch, fish, and drowning (the poison, too, comes off as liquid since “choose your poison” is often a reference to drink). Remember what I said about the keyboard and bass as fire and water? Did I get that idea from the way they sound, or from the imagery surrounding them?

And this, ah, THIS is the last and very best thing about this song, to me: the way the pieces all fit together and play off each other and make the disparate parts mean something new in context. I listen for the places where the sparks and murmurs come together, and where they drift apart. My favourite part in the entire song, besides the trucker’s-shift and falsetto combo (which I have to admit is pretty stellar), is the quieter moment right after that, at 2:30. The lyrics from two previous verses are repeated, put into new context by putting them next to each other. Underneath them, the bass breaks from its usual line and does something utterly nutty. Go listen. Hear how it goes up high and does that little ornamentation? Why does it do that there?

To my mind, that’s a little shower of sparks, the moment the water takes on the qualities of fire. It’s flesh on a neon sign, the material and ethereal together, made manifest in sound.

Ha ha ha! Now you know why I’m not a musicologist. I’d be fired. They’d be like, “You can’t do all this esoteric woo-woo! That’s not analysis!” And they’d be right.

But this song speaks to me. I like digging into why, and that takes us through layers upon layers and ultimately back  into my own head. Humans made this song, and I feel like I see them there, in the intersection of musical and verbal ideas. This is a song I listen to when I’m trying to write about seeing that light in someone else. Bizarre imagery or not, it’s a love song to me.

Speak, friend!

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