Songcatcher Go Or Go Ahead

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Go Or

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Go Ahead

by Rufus Wainwright

I saw Rufus Wainwright once when he was just starting his career, in a little club called Instant Karma. It was a small venue and hearing that large voice in such a small space was almost overwhelming. Rufus is a diva. The girl can belt. Sometimes he can veer a little too opera for my tastes but when he goes pop, I like the sensibilities he brings to the genre. His voice stretches and dips and swells. Orchestrations surge and soar. When both are working together just so, a song can fall on you, a tsunami of sound.

I was working on a screenplay several years ago. Music featured heavily in the script and I based one of the plot points on the Kate Bush song “Experiment IV“. It’s a song about a government agency recording “the sounds of mothers, the terrifying screams” because “they told us what they wanted was a sound that would kill someone.” In the script, the sound that was eventually discovered was a piece of music, an orchestral maneuver in the dark that was composed by a man who’d just lost his wife, played by a group comprised of members who had also just experienced a great loss.

I knew I’d never cite an actual song, of course. The sound that would kill you would have to be invented by the composer in your mind. You alone know your own terror far better than I ever could. In the movie, you would see the choir singing while the musicians played, but you would hear only silence.  And even though I knew there would be no such thing as a “death song,” nevertheless I wanted one to listen to, for inspiration, so that I could play it over and over in a loop while I wrote the sequence out. And when Wainwright released his third CD, I found the tune I was looking for.

Go or Go Ahead” is a showstopper but it’s sly, just like murderous music would be. The song begins tenderly, plaintively. Just gentle stroking of a sole guitar rising slowly. Then, into this delicate beauty, comes a softly sung lyric and the song’s first line that offers a hint of the pain to come.

Thank you for this bitter knowledge.


And so begins another song about love’s loss, the cruelty of its vanishing, the pain of such a dismissal, full of anger and hurt, and hope for a relief from that singular anguish of heartbreak. A whole three verses are sung in this subdued manner but the things that are name checked are all loaded poisons. There’s a guardian angel, but that protection abandoned the singer. Wainwright sings of stargazing but the brightest star he can see is a planet, the blood one named for the god of war, Mars. The symphonic momentum builds, though it takes its bittersweet time. Because this is a love that is no more and our singer is lost, stranded in his loneliness, standing in that tortuous spotlight, lonely and alone.

Despair has set in, he admits as much. He’s given up, given over to an empty limousine ride. His fairgrounds are shallow, vain. The only companions he has are angels, but they’re ones who’ve rebelled, fallen. This is the company he keeps while he writes lyrics on postcards that will never be mailed.

Then, while the song still hangs there in the quiet of the guitar, rage is confessed. The lover “can’t be trusted.” The guardian angel has left him, but he lists new ones, created by the one who caused all this hurt in the first place. They are all cruel “inventions.” They are “steel-eyed vampires of love.” And here is where the dam bursts and the singer cannot contain his emotions anymore.

Steadily and stealthily, a drum beats, but it quickly increases its percussive striking as a chorus of lonely “ooh”s begins swirling out of the misery, voices that give pain a sound. Suddenly you’re overcome by the voices, the speeding attack of the drum, and other instruments—woodwinds, strings, bass—all blowing and beating and building to a crescendo as the last word, “love” stretches and bleeds right into the first verse of the chorus and the source of the hurt is revealed: infidelity.

You’ll see over me

confesses the lovesick singer. Then he admits, singing truth with rage:

I’ll never know
what you have shown
to other eyes

Then the music breaks apart, all the instruments attacking each other, the choir of mourners wailing into the chasm of despair, repeating his words back to him, bigger and harder, a Greek chorus pointing out the painfully obvious.

You’ll never know

And then the threat comes down, the demand, Wainwright’s voice moving from dying cry to an angry request.

Go or go ahead.

Leave me. Abandon me here for good. Take my heart with you. I don’t have control over it anymore. Tell me you hurt me. Admit that you planned this. When I arrived where you wanted me to go, everything turned out to be a lie.

Go or go ahead and surprise me
Say you’ve lead the way to a mirage
Go or go ahead and just try me
But even in the end, he cannot stop himself from asking for another chance. The pain is operatic and smothering, only to quiet and drift into a soft peace. And it’s hard to tell if the hushing sound is inferring a death or a fragile hope.
Now he’s done. Fatalism overcomes him. There is someone who can save him, though. A more compassionate monster than the one whose done this to him. Medusa.
Now the choir begins singing the chorus back to him, soaring over new lyrics, bitterness spat out like bile.
He pushes his mouth to the monster’s in a kiss so “this unholy notion of the mythic power of love” will be crucified. Love will die a violent death. The chorus screams their encouragement.
Go ahead…
Then they shout at him to “look in her eyes, look in her eyes,” repeating the phrase over and over, each order intensifying in sonic urgency. And then, suddenly, the torrent of sound ends itself and we’re back, after a small pause, back to the lonely guitar. But grief never stays away for long and within the span of just a line, the choir comes roaring back, bringing the wall of sound with them. An electric guitar slices through the orchestra’s swell, piercing the cloud with precise, stabbing chords.
Each “go or go ahead” is sung with more abandon. Do it. Just do it and get it over with, he seems to say. After a round of assaults, the choir hushes itself, and the other instruments recede, bringing us back to just a lonely guitar, plucking in the dark.
Wainwright struggled with addiction and his drug of choice fueled this torrent of emotion, the song written after binging on crystal meth. The smoke hangs all over the song, wafting a cruel shadow like another, unheard voice.
Our generation doesn’t have an Edith Piaf to give voice to our pain in such a theatrical way. Instead, we have Rufus.
He’s bombastic and showy. He wears his heart on his sequined sleeve. But no singer today sings agony and heartache quite like him, which makes him a valuable member of the choral canon.
And he makes “Go or Go Ahead” a song that just kills.

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