By: Tommy Druen
Beyond music festival. This marked our third year attend this six-year-old festival, and each year has brought us an array of legendary musicians. We’ve been excited to witness performances by such luminaries as John Fogerty, Robert Plant, Pearl Jam, Blondie and a multitude of others. With an estimated 120,000 attendees this year, I think it’s safe to expect the festival’s allure to only ascend.
Among the many captivating performances, I was very interested in hearing Bastille, perhaps a lesser known band but one that has become a personal favorite. Originating from London, this band burst onto the indie scene in 2013 with the release of “Bad Blood,” a track from their album of the same name. Subsequently, “Pompeii” emerged as a massive hit, its infectious introductory melody attached to television commercials and even the highly underrated 2014 cinematic adaptation of “Mr. Peabody and Sherman.”
“Pompeii” is, by all accounts, an unconventional song. It’s not typical for lyrics to narrate the demise of a city due to an ancient natural disaster. While you wouldn’t expect that to really be en vogue, the song struck a chord with audiences. Perhaps it was the unforgettable opening strains of “Eh, eheu, eheu” that would implant themselves in the listener’s brain for days, or maybe it was the captivating drum solos that caused the song to catch on. Regardless, it remains a testament to the 79 AD volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which rapidly entombed the city of Pompeii, claiming upwards of 16,000 lives. You know, that old recipe for success in the music business: sex, drugs and – ancient Italian volcanoes.
Without a doubt, the music of the song eclipses its lyrical content. However, nestled within those verses lies a gem that has etched itself into my list of favorite song lyrics of all time. In the midst of the powerful climax, the music stops and in a high-pitched acapella interlude, one of Pompeii’s survivors poses the profound question:
Oh, where do we begin?
The rubble or our sins?
Ten simple words, a mere fraction of the song’s entirety, yet they resonate with a depth that extends far beyond the confines of the first century.
In the context of the song, these words are meant literally. As the initial tumult of the eruption subsides, survivors are confronted with a pivotal choice: begin the arduous task of clearing away the physical remnants of their beloved city or turn their efforts towards appeasing the Roman Gods, who they believed were angered by their lack of devotion. Opt for the former, and risk incurring the continued wrath of the gods (see the 2nd-12th plagues of Egypt). Choose the latter, and you find yourself mired in unlivable conditions, soon to be overcome with the noxious stench of death. It may be 1800ish years before the birth of Joseph Heller, but this is a classic Catch-22.
Of course, I don’t believe Bastille intended their lyrics to be taken so literally. While ancient history may be fascinating to some of us, the band likely intended a more philosophical interpretation, one meant to resonate with a broader audience. It’s a message that I consider both poignant and deserving of a pause for thought.
In our own lives, most all confront moments where the structure of our existence crumbles around us. Sometimes this disintegration is a consequence of poor choices, while at other times it occurs presumably without rhyme or reason. Addiction, financial ruin, infidelity – these are but a few of the trials that can leave a person feeling trapped in a seemingly hopeless quagmire, as the walls keep tumbling down and grey clouds roll over the hills bringing darkness from above, as another line from the song aptly describes. Moreover, these trials rarely affect only the person responsible for the situation; friends and family invariably suffer, and if children are involved, they are often innocently caught in crossfire.
So, what is the remedy? Should people pick up the shattered remnants of their lives and endeavor to rebuild their world without addressing underlying issues? Or should they disregard the external devastation in favor of embarking on a journey of internal healing? Where should they begin; the rubble or the sin?
One of my favorite quotations hails from Archbishop Desmond Tutu. I cite his wisdom in these words often when looking at public policy. “There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.”
Rivers, in their metaphorical form, can be treacherous obstacles for many people. For those of us fortunate enough to be on the banks, we bear a solemn responsibility to our fellow man. We must be ready and able to extend a lifeline those who find themselves in peril, while simultaneously striving to prevent the conditions that caused their plight. Our duty is to assist our brothers and sisters in the midst of their calamity so that they may focus on the work of repairing themselves internally. In essence, we must find a way to simultaneously help fix the rubble and the sins.
“Eh, eheu, eheu” indeed.