Smile

Last night, as I was falling asleep, I found myself longing to take a vow of silence for just one week.  One week without any verbal expression, written or otherwise, to counteract what has been an overwhelming past two months of around-the-clock communication, where it has felt at time as if words were meaningless, pouring out like water.  A one week sabbatical from speaking and writing would hopefully restore the potential of language for something other than passing time between actions, would hopefully teach me to consider words more carefully. Nothing is more satisfying to me about language than efficiency and tact. It was in those half-conscious moments that I realized how I would approach “Smile”.

“Smile” seems one of those songs that falls together by chance. 1 note from Dennis (of the Frogs) + Jeff Ament’s Crazy Horse guitar bit + a pretty accomplished harmonica track = “Smile”, a song that despite a relative paucity of words, is among the band’s most evocative tracks. The interplay between lyrics and music feels heaven sent, with the dusty verses unfurling into the catharsis of “I miss you already!” What more need be said: the song possesses natural conviction that it is not just a vague portrait of a state of being (abetted by the line “three crooked hearts, swirls around”, which literally transcribed Dennis’s scribbles), yet is universal in the best sense of the word, a sentiment that should resonate with every listener in his/her own way, but whose meaning can bear lifetimes of shifting and transforming. Sometimes, all a song needs to say is “I feel good!”, “I want to rock and roll all night!”, or “I miss you already”. A minimum of words can lend itself to a more impactful song.

This is why I often feel like writing an instrumental, or taking a vow of silence, to hone my senses back down onto the non-verbal, to focus on what sound and music themselves can say. The chugging, blustery momentum of “Smile” is full of ragged glory, from stately piano chords building up to the chorus, to Vedder’s debut on the mouth harp. It’s a Sunday afternoon in fall, rust colored leaves, reflective, sepia-tone daguerrotype memories of old loves, old friends, old times. “Smile”, with its open-endedness and rough beauty, sparks the imagination rather than dominating it, making it a refreshing song to return to again and again, to clear the head, to sharpen the mind, to make one, well, smile.

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~ by Michael on September 24, 2007.

4 Responses to “Smile”

  1. Looks like someone was directly impacted by “Into the Wild”. I’ve always contemplated not speaking for a few days, going into the wild, things like that. The older I get the more unrealistic a goal that becomes. But I am getting rid of my TV and computer very soon. They both are pitfalls to me. (probably after this blog wraps up) Good luck C13.

    Other than that I really have nothing much to say about ‘Smile’. It is kinda middle of the road PJ in my opinion. I do want to hear more harmonica on songs and I remember the chills that went down my spine when I first heard those harp notes. But this isn’t a song I have an urge to hear often.

  2. “Smile” is a classic example of a small song that provides profound pleasure. I’m thinking of Dylan’s Nashville Skyline album here – it’s little and lightweight and on paper doesn’t begin to match up to the heavy hitters, but in being kind of unassuming finds itself begging to be heard perhaps even more than those song. It’s a strange phenomenon, but the power of something which is simply pleasant and nothing more ought not be underestimated.

    But then, maybe it’s more than that at its core. I’ve got a “Smile” story: When I was about 13, my brother and I had walked to an Old Country Buffet, and my brother had just bought a copy of No Code next door at Best Buy (I had already purchased it a few days prior to its release, thanks to a dishonest record store clerk). Anyway, the busboy saw that my brother had the gatefold out on the table, and he came by and said, “Pearl Jam’s No Code, eh? Man, that’s my favorite band in the world.” He was probably about a 16 year-old kid, three years older than me, which at 13 seemed like a lifetime of course. My brother (who was probably 10 – I got him started young :)) and I made some PJ-related chat with him, when I told him my favorite song on the new record was “In My Tree.” He agreed with its greatness, but said, “My favorite is ‘Smile’ – my girlfriend moved away after the summer and it really hits home with me.” It was a really insignificant thing, but I felt infinitely cooler for being able to discuss with authority a cool band with a cool older kid, one who could drive, one with a real-live girlfriend. And here this same band that was speaking to me was speaking to this other peson on an entirely different level. I’ve never forgotten that little moment for some strange reason, even though it was tremendously insignificant. The kid’s name was John, and his hair was brown.

    So, maybe that’s the ultimate metaphor for “Smile.” It’s amazing which tiny little things stick with us forever, just because they awaken something small and friendly inside us. One of PJ’s most uniquely odd songs, but one of their most endearing too.

  3. I really enjoyed your story Kevin. I love this song. I think initially I loved it so much because it comes after so much soul searching at the beginning of No Code. It was such a light, fun moment. And it rises to such an ecstatic crescendo with the “I miss you already….” Now, just hearing the opening chords makes me feel good.

  4. Kevin, your story is the best thing that has been written in this entire blog. It made me smile and provoked a case of writer’s block…what can one say about anything in the face of eternity’s snapshots. I don’t know what that means exactly…but it has something to do with the very silly notion that we can dissect or deconstruct a song, when, really, all music, practically all of everything, comes down to random moments in an Old Country Buffet with your brother.

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