The Case Of 'Victor': Auden, Rush And The Rock 'N' Roll Sensibility

By Patrick Daily, Chapter&Verse, Autumn 2004

In 1938 the English poet W H Auden published The Oxford Book of Light Verse. Although now superseded, it is still widely read today and remains a classic of its kind. The book is full of folksy ballads and familiar verse, much of it taken from the oral rather than the written tradition. And poem number 246 is "Frankie and Johnny", which Auden tells us in the index, is a composite of several versions collected orally:

Frankie and Johnny were lovers.
O my Gawd how they did love!
They swore to be true to each other,
As true as the stars above.
He was her man, but he done her wrong.

The version that Auden provides here has 23 stanzas over which the classic story unfolds. Frankie sees her man Johnny "... on the sofa/ a-loving up Nelly Bly". Too bad for Johnny, that Frankie was feeling homicidal that night ...

Frankie went to the hotel
She didn't go there for fun
'Cause underneath her kimono
She toted a 44 gun
He was her man, but he done her wrong.

And the story follows the murder of Johnny, and tells us Frankie's last words ...

Johnny he was a gambler
He gambled for the gain
The very last words he ever said
Were - "High-low Jack and the game"
He was her man, but he done her wrong.

... and follows the course of Frankie's arrest, imprisonment and execution. This is a tale of a weak man who has a murderously jealous wife.

Auden considered that these common verse forms were capable of carrying profound meaning, and adopted them frequently in his own work. Although he could never be considered a popularist, his poetry is generally characterised by the inclusion of everyday verbal formulae and the vocabulary of ordinary speech in contrast to the modernism and intellectualism of Pound or Eliot. He made steps towards the position of Brecht without ever actually politicising his writing in a self-conscious way. During 1937, he had collected much of the material that was to comprise the Oxford Book of Light Verse, and it was the same year that he published "Victor" in New Writing (Autumn 1937). "Victor" is one of three ballads that concern 'case histories' of psychological types. It's about a bank clerk who is stifled and repressed by bourgeois expectations and who marries Anna. Victor, a 'mousey' introvert whose margins are straight and clean, marries Anna who is lively, flirty, beautiful and capricious. It's a recipe for disaster.

It was the Second of April,
She was wearing a coat of fur
Victor met her on the stairs
And he fell in love with her [...]
Anna looked into the mirror,
Pouted and gave a frown
Said; "Victor's as dull as a wet afternoon
But I've got to settle down."[...]
They were married early in August
She said; "Kiss me you funny boy
Victor took her in his arms and said
"O my Helen of Troy"

And here we have the first indication that Victor is not on the same wavelength as Anna, in that while she is practical, sussed and realistic, his vision of her is romanticised and bizarre. Whilst he has unfinished business sorting out the emotional mess of his childhood, she is uncomplicated and vivacious. Soon, faced with her continued flirting, his obsessive love for her approaches pathological proportions, and he asks answers from God to explain his pain.

Victor came to the forest
Cried; "Father, will she ever be true?"
And the oaks and the beeches shook their heads
And they answered: "Not to you."

The story ends, predictably, as Victor murders his beautiful wife, and to cushion himself from the reality of what he has done, he sinks into schizophrenia. The scene painted here by Auden resembles the final minutes of Hitchcock's Psycho where Norman Bates sits uncomplaining in a police cell continuing his internal dialogue with his dead mother. Both Psycho and "Victor" are portraits of insanity: in the case of Psycho, Bates represents the textbook Freudian Oedipus complex; in "Victor", the diagnosis is not so clear, but might be described as an example of religious mania, although sexual repression, guilt and low self-esteem are mixed in for good measure. In both cases, when the central characters try to square up to the real world and its demands, they resort to murder rather than acknowledge their neurosis. In both cases the victims are women and their crime is to be sexual. Norman Bates murders in order to protect his mother's sensibilities, since she would not approve of her son's sexual desire for Marion, and Victor murders because Anna is promiscuous.

They tapped Victor on the shoulder,
They took him away in a van;
He sat as quiet as a lump of moss
Saying, "I am the Son of Man."

Auden clearly had thoughts about possible musical settings for "Victor" and indicated that the poem could be sung to the tune of "Frankie and Johnny". An obvious difference from all subsequently published versions of the poem is that the version in New Writing has a one line chorus 'Have mercy, Lord, save our/your/their/his/her/my soul from Hell' after each stanza, which would accommodate the one line chorus in the tune "Frankie and Johnny". ('He was her man, but he done her wrong.') (Jenkins: 1994, p57). Nicholas Jenkins also explores Auden's collaboration with Britten at this time, and it seems reasonable to suppose that the composer would have been well aware of "Victor", as he was of its companion piece "Miss Gee" which was given to Britten to be set as a cabaret song for Hedli Anderson. A comprehensive account of Auden's and Britten's collaborations over cabaret can be found in "'For Hedli': Britten's and Auden's Cabaret Songs" (Mitchell and Reed, in WH Auden: 'The Language of Learning and the Language of Love', ed. Bucknell and Jenkins, p61).

One obvious problem with adapting long narrative ballads to music is boredom. Can a composer really do much that is meaningful with a tune that is repeated twenty-odd times with words that only sort of fit? Can an audience be expected to listen to so many repetitions of a strophic tune? One approach to this problem is to view the ballad not so much as a song, but as an accompanied dramatic monologue, and this was something that Hedli Anderson was developing at this time.

The accompanied monologue, with its implication of theatrical possibilities, was a stage 'turn' that perfectly suited Hedli's gifts. It is no surprise, perhaps, that during the war she showed herself to be an accomplished reciter in Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire and Walton's Façade.
(Mitchell & Reed, ibid., p62)

In 1996, Alex Lifeson, guitarist with Canadian stadium rockers Rush, released his solo album Victor. It's an item that you'll have to look hard for. Although now deleted, it's still available through internet links to selected second-hand dealers. Lifeson's ambitions for the project were more personal than anything else. As he says in an interview with Gerald Tan of Big O Magazine:

" ... it ended up being more successful than I expected it to be. [It] was something I did for myself, and if no one had bought a copy or heard it, it wouldn't have bothered me, it was something I needed to do, I had to get through the whole experience of making my own record - of writing it, recording it, mixing it, producing it, playing on it... the whole thing was my life for 11 months [...]You know, on top of it, I had a very good reaction critically and I sold a few copies of it [...] But I was mostly really moved by the number of good reviews that it got, and that was a wonderful thing."
- Big O Magazine October 1998

There are 11 tracks on the album, of which two are instrumentals. The song "Victor" uses Auden's lyrics and is the penultimate song on the album. It is the central idea around which the rest of the songs are planned. Lifeson claims to have written the music first, then worked to find lyrics for the music that he'd written and then, he claims, he discovered the Auden poem and judged that it suited the mood of the album. This is Alex Lifeson responding to a caller on the Steve Downes show on Toronto's Q107 Radio (Rockline, 1996)

[Caller]: And my question is, the Auden poem, "Victor", is obviously pretty dark and disturbing. What got you interested in "Victor", and why'd you decide to put it to music?
[AL]: I was fiddling around with the music. I wanted to have something on the record that was a little different than the other songs. I really wanted to have some variety overall on the record. I thought it'd be kinda cool to do a song where I didn't actually play guitar on, and just did all the programming. I thought, also, once the music had been written, that it'd be kinda fun to do a spoken word thing - sort of a pseudo-beatnik kinda reading. I opened a book that I had of [Auden's] collected poems to "Victor", and I read it through. Although "Victor" the poem is very, very long, I condensed it for the song. It really caught the essence of what the record was about, dealing with the dark side of love and how it can push you to do things that are pretty horrific. So, it seemed to suit the record quite well.

I find it hard to believe that Auden's "Victor" wasn't the starting point for this particular project. It just seems highly improbable that Lifeson could have written so much of the material, and then discovered the Auden poem afterwards. My hunch is that Lifeson either knew it or discovered it before the real creative work on the album progressed, and then constructed the other songs to give some kind of background and perspective on the tale.

It's a story about a doomed relationship. Most of the songs that Lifeson has written articulate Victor's horrific situation ... he feels vitriolic, scared, loving, destructive, callous, repentant, murderous and eventually detached from the responsibility of his actions. One of the songs puts words into the mouth of Anna, his wife. What emerges from this expanded tapestry of ideas is something very different from Auden's "Victor". The poet's version tells the story in the third person, but one should not deduce from this that he is necessarily detached or even-handed about his treatment. Of course, Auden was writing well before the feminist revision of English grammatic style at a time when it was de rigeur to refer to an unspecified third person as 'he', but nevertheless, one should not entirely discount Auden's sexism. Lifeson, however, addresses a different audience from Auden's, and he is writing sixty years later. The immediacy of rock and the heroic nature of rock performance favour song lyrics in the first person, and the album freely mixes songs in the first and third person voices. In the song "Victor", with Auden's words, the standpoint of the narrative reverts to the third person which, appropriately, adds a psychotic twist to the narrative that wouldn't have been foreseen by Auden.

Lifeson places Auden's lyric against his own narrative background; the songs which he has written which precede "Victor" change the way in which we perceive it. A brief summary of the content of the songs shows how the story of Victor has a new light thrown upon it. "Don't Care", the first song, describes the way that Victor's fight with feelings of inadequacy extend into the arena of sexual relations. "Promise", the second song focuses on Victor's wish to change himself and his relationship. The third song however, put a markedly different emphasis on the tale. This is the song that puts words into Anna's mouth, and it is sung by Canadian female singer Dalbello. It's hard to describe her voice, except that she sounds remarkably like Geddy Lee, but with even more vitriol: it's an amazing performance. She is a harpie that would tear poor Victor to shreds, she is Electra, she is any one of the men-eating women that populate world mythology. Now this is a real departure from Auden's tale, in which Anna was flighty, flirty and damned attractive, but not a mortal menace to men. With Lifeson, she emerges as the nub of the problem, whereas in Auden's poem, Victor himself was such a cocktail of complexes, that he, more than her, precipitated the calamity. Now of course, Alex Lifeson has the artist's privilege to write about what he chooses, and we are all aware that innocent and unassuming men do, from time to time, get eaten by hungry women, but haven't we heard enough about rock misogyny to sound a few alarms here? Isn't this the sort of fundamental shift in the emphasis of Auden's narrative that reflects the predisposition of the genre? Isn't Lifeson's reading of Anna exactly what one might expect when the tale is transposed into rock?

Lifeson may have had problems with the length of the poem. Like Hedli Anderson, he opts for dramatic recitation rather than plain and simple singing, and this may well have been what Auden intended (if he intended anything). But having adopted the approach that might have allowed some suspense, drama and charm, Lifeson's rendition is unremittingly grim. It's grimmer than gangsta rap. He doesn't allow himself the luxury of a little irony here and there, or even any significant tonal variation: it's just head-on telling-it-like-it-is. And I feel flattened by it. There are all sorts of undercurrents in Auden's poem; irony certainly, and possibly a measure of smugness in the way that the poet with an omniscient perspective on life, chooses as his subject matter neurotics, obsessives and madmen. But because of Auden's wit, because of the cleverness of his rhymes and the neatness of his metre, we can enjoy his loftiness as the perversity of the tale unfolds. It's like enjoying the snobbery of Noël Coward. But Lifeson lacks their suavity and charm. The subtle flavours of bleak humour are replaced with the rawness and vulgarity of rock. It's a nasty story ... told nastily.

What Lifeson also does is that he shortens the poem. He omits the stanzas in which Victor eavesdrops on his colleagues at the bank when they are talking about him, but more importantly, he also misses out the stanzas in which Anna cuts the cards. Auden would have considered this latter omission unacceptable, not only because there is an echo of "Frankie and Johnny" in the questing of Fate, but also, as John Fuller remarks "the card she turns over in stanza 28 is appropriately a reversed Ace of Spades, a name for the female genitals" (Fuller, 1998, p279) . Auden's story has echoes of Hardy's Bathsheba Everdine, for the love of whom Farmer Boldwood murdered Troy, or even Merimée's Carmen in which similarly, the capricious heroine foresees her demise by cutting the cards. In these examples, the heroine embodies life, energy, creativity and joy even if their actions are morally questionable on occasions.

But there's one other song on Lifeson's Victor album that is highly distinctive and deserves attention. Song number seven is called "Shut up Shuttin' Up". And it consists of a flat out, Seventies style groove against which two women improvise a nasty bitching conversation about the inadequacy of men. It covers perennial topics such as one, leaving the lavatory seat up; two, hair on the bathroom floor; three, 'they're only interested in one thing and we know what that is'; four, girly talk about gorgeous men (not their respective husbands of course)....and more. But the punch line at the end of each verse is 'Just shut up and play the guitar'. What are we to make of this? Is the song seriously saying that these awful women regard men as being useful in one department only ... the guitar solo? Is this a metaphor? I thought Victor was inadequate sexually? But maybe he could wield a mean metal axe? Or, is Alex Lifeson being uncomfortably autobiographical. His own remarks about the track only throw a little light it:

Well, the album was developing into quite a dark record, and I just wanted to inject a little bit of levity in it.

[Sorry, there's no levity here. It's terrifying.]

So, I got my wife, Charlene, and her best friend, Esther, who's a real character, in to do this little bit of nagging about the funny little habits that some of us have, and the silly little things that we argue about that end up becoming big things in the overall picture. We had them in there for about seven hours going through so many different things, and they were well lubricated with a couple bottles of wine. By the end of it, of course, we couldn't get them to shut up.
(Steve Downes talks to Alex Lifeson: ibid)

Viewing the album holistically, it's certainly an interesting idea to use Auden in this way. I think too, that Lifeson has opted for the only practical solution to the question of how exactly to perform a long narrative ballad. But one of the obvious drawbacks of using lyrics from a writer of Auden's calibre is that it invites direct comparison. Auden's poem is multi-layered, highly intelligent and, despite its apparent simplicity, amazingly original. Lifeson attempts profundity, but misses. It's almost unkind to select examples to demonstrate the paucity of his invention, but how can verse such as: An angel of love is what I may appear / What I really am is really not so clear / I don't live for love, you sticky bitch / All I care about is if you're rich ... exist alongside the sparkling inventions of Auden? It's interesting, too, that in Auden's hands the story about a rather drab and troubled man with a glamorous wife is told in a tragi-comic way, whereas in Lifeson's version, the wife has become simply a monster. But this is to be expected when the author's focus of interest moves from psychoanalysis to mainstream rock. The concept of Victor promises much, but delivers rather less. As a proposal, a solo album by Alex Lifeson, who is a third part of one of the major icons of rock over a twenty year period, with significant input from Auden, augurs well, but somehow the whole adds up to less than the sum of the constituent parts. If you like Rush this is a piece of interesta in the sidelines of the main Rush canon. But, if you are attracted to the poetry of W H Auden, you may well consider that a disservice has been done.

Bibliography & Reference

Auden, Wystan Hugh (ed) 1938 Oxford Book of Light Verse OUP Auden, Wystan Hugh 1945 Collected Poetry of WH Auden Random House NY
Bold, Alan: 1985 WH Auden: The Far Interior Barnes & Noble, NJ
Fuller, John: 1998 WH Auden: A Commentary Faber & Faber, London
Jenkins, Nicholas, 1994 Uncollected Songs & Lighter Poems 1936-40 (in WH Auden, The Language of Learning and the Language of Love eds Katherine Bucknell and Nicholas Jenkins, 1994) OUP
Mitchell, D & Philip Reed: 1994 'For Hedli': Britten and Auden's Cabaret Songs (In Bucknell & Jenkins ibid..)
Transcript of interview with Alex Lifeson with Gerald Tan
The war against silence.Issue no. 55 (ed) Glen Mc Donald 02/96
Steve Downes January 15th 1996 Rockline show