I was having a conversation the other day with someone about “Strip Mall,” and whether there is anything going on below the surface in that song. Like is it just a superficial song about sex, drugs, and rock n' roll, or is about anything deeper? To be honest my thinking was that the song is fun and easy and, to me it is a superficial song and that’s all it’s meant to be. And in retrospect maybe I could have chosen a more intellectual song to lead with after not putting anything out for a year and a half. But there was something to the ethos of that song that was in the spirit of the wider collection.
When I was writing, recording, and arranging these songs with the band that Joni Mitchell lyric “songs are like tattoos,” often came to mind. In my opinion this is an odd observation for a folk singer to make, because folk songs are not like tattoos in some obvious ways. Namely, if they live long enough the words and arrangements get changed around so much and so often that different renditions are barely identifiable as the same song. Listen to the Louvin Brothers singing “Katy Dear,” and to Ian and Sylvia doing the same song. Then tell me again that songs are like tattoos. I suppose songs are sometimes like tattoos to the people who consume them when they leave a permanent mark on an individual.
To the people who write songs they really are a lot like tattoos. It’s a beautiful line in context. I think it also isn’t a glib metaphor. This may be a cliché, but at the beginning your song is pure potential. You sing it to yourself many times. Your mind fills in all the gaps. It’s easy to believe at this stage that the song says what you meant for it to say. Then when it becomes a realized thing that others can interact with sometimes a mourning period follows. You’re not mourning because the song is no good, but because at some point you had to let go of the pure thing you were trying to communicate. I’ve had that same experience with tattoos every time I’ve gotten one. Loved the idea; dug the endorphin rush from the pain; liked the art. Then had to grapple with the permanence of the act. You can’t really take back a song once you set it adrift, and there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s what makes it a song, and what makes it commutable to other humans.
Likewise tattoos can be whatever you want. What we call traditional tattoos in North America draw on images from pop culture, on a set of ideas, and a way of thinking about art that is too vulgar to be pure. I was leaning into this strategy last summer. Bag ‘em and tag ‘em. Write the song and make the choices that will make it sound good. Accept the permanence of that act. So if you’ve heard the song maybe you can see what I’m getting at.
There’s a second way that songs are like tattoos to the people who write them, in that they inevitably become mementos of your mindset at the time. That’s the part of the song that isn’t ‘surface level’ to me. Because when I wrote “Strip Mall,” I was drinking a lot. I was walking around Oliver and Glenora to a set of several bars I hated trying to make a connection with people and feeling isolated. The drinking and bars were having the opposite effect from what I wanted. I’d drink and get cynical and self-conscious and not talk to anyone. The bar culture in the West is part to blame. People don’t really value neighbourhood joints here. They still exist, but most places are built for people who show up in large groups.
Doesn’t change the fact I was using the drug to keep not solving a social problem. I wrote the song in my head at one of those bars, while I was drunk trying not to talk to people while really wishing I was talking to people. I like to think I’m not the guy in the song. I don’t share his attitude. I think he’s a bit dull. I like to think I’m not, but I have been him at least a couple times. I can’t sing or hear the song without remembering what that felt like, so to me that’s how the song is like a tattoo. It’s a funny little thing that bears the imprint of some pain, or a scar in the shape a pop art image.