|[A Guided Tour of Ten]|
But I'm getting a little ahead of myself. As a caveat I want to say that I think Alive is only superficially a song about incest, and not a very good one at that. The song succeeds in spite of that story, rather than because of it. Personally I suspect Eddie wrote the song about himself and added that story to it later to create some distance between it and him—to make it a little less intimate and revealing. Even if he had that incest frame in mind when he was writing it it was always secondary.
The opening guitar riff to Once is dirty and distracting—it is meant to convey the mad pounding in the singer's brain, the inability to focus. Alive is exactly the opposite. It is crisp, clear, and defiant. It is a statement of purpose, of solidarity and strength (and is probably my favorite riff of all time). And the music and the vocal delivery (this song is one of Eddie's real masterpieces in terms of the vocals—every line is given exactly the right inflection—his confusion, the off handed diffidence of his mother filtered through his own shock and anger, the strength and possibilities of the chorus) together are what anchor Alive. It is what gives the song its hope. The lyrics are dark and lifeless and offer little in terms of salvation. The riff is redemptive. If Alive was sung by Conner Oberest (bright eyes) the entire song would be spent wallowing in self-pity and existential crisis—and he wouldn’t necessarily be wrong for doing so. It's a legitimate choice given the subject matter. But the clarity of the music and the strength in Eddie's voice offer a crucial juxtaposition to the story being told. We don’t know based on the story being told if the singer will make it out okay (in fact we have reason to bet that he wouldn’t), but the music and delivery tell us otherwise
I love the casual, off handed way the song begins. “Son, have I got a little story for you”. And with that little story the mother demolishes the foundations of the singer’s universe—the fact that this happens to him when he is just beginning his teenage years makes it worse, as he is at the time when we are just beginning to construct adult identities for ourselves and nothing in life is solid. At that moment the one thing he thought he could rely on, the truth of his family, is taken away from him. And moving beyond just finding out that he was adopted, he knows too that one of the people who created him is lost to him forever. But, as his mother reminds him, shit happens. Try not to worry about it. And she is relieved. It is like finishing your first conversation with your child about sex. It is as much for your benefit (if not moreso) than theirs. One thing you can cross off your parental to-do list.
The second verse is a little troubling since I don’t really like the incest interpretation. I picture this as his mother crossing the room to attempt to comfort him, while he remains dumbfounded by the revelation. It's not enough. A few quick words of comfort can’t make this go away. Yeah, he's alive, life goes on, but in some meaningful way it is now all a lie. His life needs to be rebuilt, and he doesn’t know how to do it or who to go to for answers (the who answers question is especially poignant given the way the album ends, with Eddie in the dark talking to his dead father, waiting for answers that will never come—at least not from his father)
And that is what is going on with the insistent declaration in the chorus. Everything else is a lie, but at least he is still alive. He never comes out and tells us what to make of this (he rarely did in the early records—if Indifference was written today he would tell us that it makes a difference instead of leaving it to the listener). He could be alive and have nothing. He could be alive and paralyzed, trapped and uncertain where to go from here. Once points to another possibility. But it is clear both from the music and from the power in his vocals that he is alive and defiant. That this is something he will rise above. He is alive, and ready to begin again.
And with that declaration Mike's solo kicks in, which I still think is the most emotionally striking guitar solo of all time, and arguably the most powerful piece of music I've ever heard. Through it he lets out all the anger, frustration, trepidation and fear that the singer feels and through it he finds the strength needed to continue. It conveys so much without ever saying a word beyond some of Eddie's wordless vocal coloring (something I wish he would go back to). It reminds us that he is alive, and that he is going to be okay.
Alive is an extremely personal song, and one that few of us can (hopefully) relate to in any direct sense. But we don’t have to relate directly. Alive is for anyone who has ever been violated (emotionally or physically) by those closest to us and reminds us that we can and will survive it, that as long as we're alive we’ll survive to love and trust again.
OTHER SONGS IN THIS SERIES:
OTHER GUIDED TOUR SERIES: