'To live an' love - an' so life mooches on': a scene from 1919's silent film The Sentimental Bloke, based on C. J. Dennis' poem.
C. J. DENNIS wrote about love in a very Australian way back in the day. The way he went about it was honest and workmanlike, but also unashamed and unafraid. Dennis, or "Den" as he was called, didn't write songs or at least not that we know of. But what is a love song, if not the prose of love set to a tune?
In his verse novel The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke from 1915 – written in an old bus at Kallista in the Dandenong Ranges – his lovable rogue antihero was called Bill, and Bill hung around the bad boys of Little Lonsdale Street. But then Bill met Doreen, who worked in a pickle factory.
She's not a petty crook like him; she's a nice girl from the right side of the tracks. He is smitten and falls in love. Big love, like Australia. Unable to be tamed or properly explained. He's full-blooded, he's head-over-heels, and he's faster and more single-minded than a drainpipe rat.
The narrative here is of the bludging outsider, the one looking in to where the "everyday" people are, being broken in by the virtuous and well-raised daughter of respectable Melbourne. When he first meets Doreen's Ma, later in the tale, she looks hard for any uprightness in him.
As he is courting Doreen, Bill wants to get his leg over. Then he wants to be married. He wants to be inside the circle from which he has always been excluded, and he wants to be seen to be doing the right thing.
It's great, and also very real. Like a Paul Kelly love song. The one I think of first is When I First Met Your Ma, even though the sting here is that romantic love doesn't always last. "Like a bird," Kelly sings, it "flies away". Kelly writes of walking and kissing in the Fitzroy Gardens, the couple stopping to save themselves then lying together in her father's house, but: "... then her dad came pounding and kicked me out of there, I walked two miles in Melbourne rain, I could have walked 10 more."
C. J. Dennis' Bill takes Doreen on a date to see a show, Romeo and Juliet. "The swell two-dollar touch" in a place with "a chair apiece wiv velvet on the seat". There's a wonderful verse where they are watching Romeo and Juliet on the balcony kissing "wiv pretty words, like two love-birds" and Bill nudges Doreen, who is misty-eyed. "An' I squeeze 'er 'and."
THE most popular song at weddings last year, according to all the surveys, was Unchained Melody by the Righteous Brothers. By rights, wedding songs must be love songs in the popular imagination. The No.1 at funerals was My Way by Frank Sinatra, also a love song of sorts, one of self-love, though not in the same way as Turning Japanese by the Vapours or I Touch Myself by the Divinyls.
Unchained Melody would seem almost to be the perfect love song, in a very traditional way, expressing romantic love through a godly gaze, a very 1950s vision of how a man might "correctly" love a woman. It is very male and conservative, and it is as much about separation as togetherness. It expresses the yearning for love rather than love itself, which is a pretty true expression, I think. The promise of love could be said to be the sole motivation to keep living a life.
I would put it near Love Me Tender, sung by Elvis Presley, as among the greatest of all love songs. Love Me Tender was written a long time before Elvis got his hands on it, as an instrumental. The words – "... I'll be yours through all the years, 'til the end of time ..." – were written by the music director of the Love Me Tender film and his wife. Would it express romantic love so well without those words? Maybe so. The right sparse chords, gently rising strings and soft human voices: that's sometimes all it takes.
If you have a look at the track listing for Aussie Love Songs, an iTunes-only release of summer 2011 with two bronzed beach people in front of the flag for the "artwork", there's not a huge amount that rises above the generic. The problem is that it's so easy for a love song to slide into a kind of generalised default: consider that it wasn't until Paperback Writer, backed with John Lennon's Rain, in 1966 that the Beatles put out a single with neither A or B side about love.
On Aussie Love Songs are Believe Again by Delta Goodrem, Truly Madly Deeply by Savage Garden, Til You Love Me by the McClymonts and Keith Urban's Only You Can Love Me This Way. These are the love songs that deal not in specifics but the widest generalities. They couch love in layers of metaphor so deep that they appeal most to those who believe in cheap syndicated horoscopes.
Unchained Melody has this. It uses water as a device; it has lonely rivers flowing "to the open arms of the sea", a living thing moving towards its source, where it will stop and be content. Yet Delta's Believe Again even asks generic questions within its generic nature – all-encompassing questions, nonsense questions, carnival psychic questions. Have you ever stared into the rain? Have you ever spun out of control? These are open invitations to overlay your own love problems or love desires or love journeyings onto a more-or-less blank canvas. The song tells us nothing. The delivery – unlike, say, Love Me Tender – also tells us nothing, and invites us to feel so very much as to reduce it to nothingness.
This is the ultimate vacuity of the singer-songwriter: to write songs so general they become void. Love songs are especially vulnerable to this. Urban's Only You Can Love Me This Way, written by Nashville songmakers, falls right into this gaping hole: "... we can roll with the punches, we can stroll hand in hand ..." The McClymonts, an internationally successful country trio of sisters from Grafton, New South Wales, reprise the title of a '90s nu-country smash for Reba McEntire in Til You Love Me, also written by Nashville hit-makers, but the Australian version cloys with generalities such as "... open your arms and show me your heart ..." – the standard female plea to the stereotypical hardened male who cannot let love in.
WHAT is true love, then? What means true love in song? Or what is it true to sing?
The folk singer Woody Guthrie said in his book Bound for Glory, written in the 1940s, that if a person wanted to write their own song rather than recycle those of others, then look around. Look at things that happen in a micro, not macro, sense.
"If a cyclone comes, or a flood wrecks the country," he wrote, "or a busload of schoolchildren freeze to death along the road, or if a big ship goes down, and an airplane falls in your neighbourhood, an outlaw shoots it out with the deputies, or the working people go out to win a war, yes, you'll find a trainload of things you can set down and make up a song about."
This was Woody's great schtick, of course: the dustbowl, the sharecropping families, the working people and their journeys. But he also wrote love songs, of a kind. The three I'm thinking of are Hard Ain't It Hard, Who's Gonna Shoe Your Pretty Little Feet and also the hymnal Love Thyself, and although he writes a very direct, unsentimental and specific kind of song, these are still what I would call lateral. The first is the unrequited love song ("true love don't come here anymore"), the second is love-gone-wrong ("the only woman I ever did love, on that train and gone") and the third is about self-love and self-esteem – a kind of Staple Singers' Respect Yourself for the troubled Depression era.
I look at this Aussie Love Songs thing and sift between the chasms of indifference and find Crowded House, Hunters and Collectors' Throw Your Arms Around Me and Paul Kelly. This is what it comes back to time and time again in the search for a true native love song.
I asked Facebook some time ago to cite the best and of the 90-odd people who replied, Throw Your Arms Around Me was the clear winner. I added them up. Crowded House did really well with Distant Sun and Fall at Your Feet but Split Enz did better with the magnificent Message to My Girl ("it's no New Year's resolution, it's more than that ...") but they were a New Zealand band, so I had to discount them in this quest. Throw Your Arms is remarkable. It is lustful in that he will kiss her in ''four places'' but tender in that he will also touch her head and her feet. We know it to be pretty much autobiographical about a love affair Hunters' frontman (and co-writer) Mark Seymour was having.
''Love songs are hard enough to pull off tastefully,'' he once wrote. ''The strength of Arms is in its honesty.'' In it, she has power over him, she makes him shout her name out loud. And when he does so, in the song's astonishing climax, he does it to ''the blue summer sky''.
Paul Kelly is always there or thereabouts in these dizzying realms. His newest record, Spring & Fall, is a song cycle of sorts, about love coming and going, and he tells it from an older, restless man's perspective in language so plain and confronting it almost cuts through romantic notions of love towards purely physical and physiological imperatives. I always deeply felt She's a Melody (Stupid Song) from 1989's So Much Water So Close to Home, an album in which he channelled Raymond Carver (and turned one of his dark, abrupt stories into a song and album title).
She's a Melody has him submitting to the transience of sexual desire and knowing, as he still appears to want to write about, that all things will pass. ''I will carve her name upon the air,'' he sings, ''not in wood or stone.''
Nick Cave is terrific, of course, but is too insincere for me a lot of the time with love. It is too often unclear whether he means what he says and whether he loves women as hard as his at least superficially passionate songs attest. Into My Arms is interesting because it is equally about death as it is about life. Cave played it most prominently at Michael Hutchence's funeral, an act he banned TV cameras from filming.
Cave's apparent love songs, however, are couched in layers of such delicious metaphor that real meaning becomes elusive. The swallows who sharpen their beaks among the colliding angels' chariots and the sky throwing thunderbolts and sparks of Straight to You may refer to the swallow being the ancient Egyptian love poets' totem for the dawning of new love. But it may not. Cave's whole heaven-and-earth obsession and his career-long love/hate narrative with God and the heavy symbolism of heaven makes his poems of ''love'' open-ended.
To write the great Into My Arms, for example, which I do take to be true and sincere, he claims to have left a church in Surrey, England, to jot down the lines, which begin with: ''I do not believe in an interventionist God, but I know darling that you do.''
The song subverts the ''love'' cliche of ''angels'' by not saying ''you are an angel'' but ''I don't believe in the existence of angels, but looking at you I wonder if that's true.'' He believes, later, in only ''some kind of path'' that this love he speaks of can take, but then he deflects everything to the object, to her, singing: ''make her journey bright and pure that she will keep returning always and evermore''. It's not about him, despite the declaration at the beginning. It is about her. And that is probably as close to true love as is possible to find.
True, real love. We need something to believe in. We don't need things to wrap our fantasies around. We need concrete reality. Flame Trees by Cold Chisel gave me a lot of trouble while I was thinking about all this. Is it a love song? If so, to what?
It's undoubtedly one of the great Australian rock songs, but what is it? It's equally nostalgia, longing and love, I think. A man goes back to the Australian bush town where he was raised and feels nostalgia at what he recalls but also distaste at how little things have changed. Yet the landscape, or the streetscape (''at one of two hotels'') reminds him of a girl that he may or may not have loved once upon a time and who is not there now. I take it to mean that she is dead. I also take grief to be pure love caught up and spinning in a supernova of emotion.
C. J. Dennis would approve of Don Walker's lyrics here: ''… but who needs that sentimental bullshit, anyway, it takes more than just a memory to make me cry, I'm happy just to sit here round a table with old friends and see which one of us can tell the biggest lies''. Flame Trees makes me think of that great Melbourne song Under the Clocks by Weddings, Parties, Anything, written by Mick Thomas, a writer well-schooled in bush ballads, folklore, Australian mythology and also urban life. He wrote Under the Clocks as a way of describing a date, in Melbourne, in winter. A ramble along the Yarra, a stolen kiss and onward to the footy at the MCG. The girl he is with (''a Melbourne girl on a rusty Malvern Star'') is so lovely, he sings, ''that if the Saints get done again, by Christ I couldn't care''. In a Melbourne context, that is true love, a love greater than a football man's love for his team. Thomas told me once that his parents Brian, originally from Tasmania, and Margaret, from northern Victoria, would meet under the iconic Flinders Street station clocks and the song was in part a tribute to their love but also an expression of how he had sometimes felt. In plain, lovely terms.
That's what I want from a love song. I want it to be plain, and lovely, like Bill and Doreen at Romeo and Juliet with a chair apiece.
■ Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' new album, Push the Sky Away, is out February 18. They play the Sidney Myer Music Bowl on March 2. ticketmaster.com.au