SYLVIA PLATH by Ryan Adams and Richard Causon (from Gold)
SYLVIA PLATHI wish I had a Sylvia Plath
And maybe shed take me to France
Or maybe to Spain and shed ask me to dance
In a mansion on top of the hill
Shed ash on the carpet and slip me a pill
Then shed get me pretty loaded on gin
And maybe shed 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, shed be winking at me
Telling me it would all be okay
Out on the horizon and fading away
And Id swim to the boat and Id laugh
I gotta get me a Sylvia Plath.
In an interview in September 2001 with Rocks 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. Plaths 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 Laughners tribute Sylvia Plath with its 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. Plaths life is a tragic myth yet Adams wont 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 shed ash on the carpet). Thirty years after her death Plath acts as an inspiration to others, like a Siren.
Birthday Letters suggests the fate of Hughes and Plath was poetic, and their marriage is a unique thing in literature. In Adams imagination, 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 Pettys 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 dont 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 Townes 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 lyrics 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 Plaths 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 wasnt a place to live.
The mix of Never-Never Land fantasy with a harsh reality is reminiscent of Philip K Dicks 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.
Many thanks to Matt Bryden of York, England for sending us this article. (January 2002)