Why, the bird does sing, caged!
By Yong Shu Hoong
To be honest, I have never really been a big fan of Death Cab For Cutie. God knows I've tried. I had even bought advance tickets to the Grammy-nominated band's concert last July at the Esplanade Theatre. Then an overseas trip came up for my brother, who was supposed to accompany me for the sold-out gig, and I took it as a sign, if not an excuse, to sell off both tickets via Carousell.
And that was that, I thought. Then as the Covid-19 pandemic started to take hold around the world, Death Cab lead singer Ben Gibbard announced he would be streaming daily acoustic performances from his home studio in Seattle. For his first show on March 17, the first song he launched into was 'We Will Become Silhouettes', a song originally recorded by The Postal Service, an electronic "superband" that he was a member of during its brief existence. An apt song to pick, considering the lyrics:
In an online letter, which appears on the YouTube page for the first show, Gibbard writes: "I know you are all really freaked out right now. I am too. And while I'm proud that we're all doing the necessary things at the moment to help flatten the curve, I know it has left us all incredibly isolated.
"But because we're all going through this nightmare together we are quite literally NOT alone. Our lives and stories are all linked, maybe more now than they have ever been."
For some reason, watching Gibbard perform on my TV screen, I think of that perennial question, "Why does the caged bird sing?" Just like Gibbard, most people around the world are staying put in their homes. The degree of how much they feel trapped in cages is dependent on how stringent their governments are in enforcing the lockdown on where they are living, in terms of movement restrictions and control.
In her poem, 'Caged Bird', American poet Maya Angelou writes:
The theme of this poem is echoed in the note that Singapore poet Loh Guan Liang writes on his publisher Ethos Books' website to accompany his bird-inspired poem 'Of the Same Feather':
I understand the metaphor and noble purposes. At the 2017 launch of Jim Tan's book Payoh, which incorporates within its narrative an allegorical tale of birds in a protected sanctuary gaining autonomy from the humans, someone had brought along a cage adorned with fake birds probably, partly a portable installation art and partly a statement on the state of our nation.
But really, why does the caged bird sing? Even when I was asking a staff from the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, where I did a writing residency years ago, the answer seemed a little sketchy. Is it a matter of old habits dying hard (though I would question the practicality of mating calls if the cage acts as solitary confinement), or just an urge for socialising to know that there are other birds out there that would hear it and hopefully respond?
Of course, artists trapped in their homes will naturally find ways to be creative it's what they do best. And it's the tendency of motivated, or even overachieving, humans to want to be productive despite the restrictions, and despite (and perhaps because of) the overall depressive funk. In fact, one viewer of Gibbard's March 17 session likened it to a masterclass on learning the guitar chords and strum patterns to the favourite Death Cab and Postal Service tunes, so viewers with some iota of musical talent and a lot of free time might be tempted to learn from this maestro in his almost 50-minute session.
Other songs that Gibbard belts out include 'A Lack of Colour', 'Northern Lights', a cover of Radiohead's 'Fake Plastic Trees', and 'California Zephyr', a song he recorded with Jay Farrar, with lyrics adapted from the text of Jack Kerouac's novel Big Sur. Another Postal Service track, 'The District Sleeps Alone Tonight', closes the session:
The need for social contact in this time of isolation, albeit through a virtual realm, is likely a reason driving Gibbard to deliver his daily shows which later turned weekly though he does also solicit donations for worthy causes. What I enjoy most is the intimacy of the shows he wears comfortable home-clothes and drinks tea from a mug, while peppering the music with banter. For example, he speaks about riding his bicycle with his wife and passing a basketball court where a very physical game was taking place (something he disapproves of in this age of physical social distancing). And, like many, he expresses his bewilderment at the panic hoarding of toilet rolls. He also entertains Q&A from his fans even trivial queries like "Where did you get that R.E.M. T-shirt?"
Of course, Gibbard's shows is not the only stuff I occupy myself with during my stay-at-home stint, between whatever ongoing work I still have to complete. I attend online church services, wondering if it would be appropriate to wear something much-too-casual in front of the TV, and whether I should stand when a hymn is sung. I watch staged productions like a new staging of Jesus Christ Superstar, the 1970 rock opera by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, for the first time on Easter Sunday, though religious pundits would probably disapprove. I've tried dance lessons, courtesy of Sadler's Wells Theatre in London, and taichi warm-ups taught by an Asian-American master. I've listened to Patrick Stewart read Shakespearean sonnets, and watched the Singapore Symphony Orchestra perform in front of an empty concert hall. I've written poems in response to SingPoWriMo (Singapore Poetry Writing Month) prompts on Facebook (well, I should really be reading and writing more), played old DVDs (including The Accidental Tourist and a Duran Duran concert documentary), and given the excellent Fleabag a second viewing on Amazon Prime Video.
But Gibbard's shows are what I return to, again and again. I'm still not a fan. But his voice is reassuring, especially while I'm doing my laundry or mopping my floor space, as if in a time of isolation, there is a friend ready to sooth you with music and healing words. Yet at the same time, as his songs flow from his gilded cage to mine, I'm reminded to not lose track of the less fortunate, whose cages might be crammed, dilapidated, noisy, inhabitable or even non-existent, despite clipped wings.
In Carl Phillips' foreword to Eduardo C. Corral's debut collection of poetry, Slow Lightning (2012), he writes about "framing", how the first line of the first poem of the book seems to form "a frame of sorts" with the last line of the poem that closes the book: "we have an instance, at the level of imagery and subject matter, of that old Greek rhetorical figure, chiasmus, a frame within a frame, or a cage within a cage which is why chiasmus tends most often to convey a sense of enclosure, at best; at worst, imprisonment and the claustrophobia that comes with it."
In these uncertain times, when the idea of normalcy no longer makes sense, what is imprisonment, what is freedom? Is a cage a cage? I stare at the TV long enough and I think I see a frame within another frame, within another within its frame. Why does the caged bird sing? Why, the bird does sing, caged!
As the politicians say, we first strive to solve the problem at hand, and when it's all over, we reflect on what can be done better. The artists reflect and sing in the moment, and it's all part of coping with and resolving hitches and tribulations even if it's just boredom along the way, though there may yet be more insights to haunt us and to outpour in the aftermath, the layer within layer of meanings waiting to be unravelled.
In the meantime, the infections and deaths continue around us, invisible from our respective cages. And through the frame of my TV, Gibbard sings a fan favourite, 'I Will Follow You into the Dark':
QLRS Vol. 19 No. 2 Apr 2020