"When there is nothing left to burn, you have to set yourself on fire."


I have spent far too much time here at work trying to find the source for this quote. What I have mostly found, are 'blogs. Endless fields of 'blogs. The quote, as I know it, is a vocal sample at the start of a song called Your Ex-Lover Is Dead, by The Stars. It sounds rather like Orson Welles to me, but it could very easily be someone trying to sound like Orson. No clue. It's frustrating. I really need to know who said this, and as a part of what.

Because I want to tattoo it on my chest.

Just found it. It's the lead singer's father, a noted actor. (Dag! No wonder I was having trouble finding it.) Yet I am still context-less, apart from the album itself, which is mostly about breaking up and breaking down. (Such a novelty in a pop album.) It sounds so much like a classic quote, and Mr. Campbell is noted for his association with The Stratford Festival, so the possibility persists. In the meantime, I'll just have to go on ascribing my own meaning, on which more in a moment.

This is one of those strange things from strange places. The album was released some three years ago, and I'd never heard of it. The song came to me in the form of a mix CD made for me by a relative stranger (though we did pretend to tromp together through deepest Africa once) from Camp Nerdly. He handed it off to sort of drop cargo on his way out, originally intending--I believe--to barter with it at the Nerdly goods swap. It's all scratched up from transport and informal packaging, and I frankly couldn't be sure it would load into ye olde iTunes successfully. Yet it did, and weeks later it is rapidly scaling my "Tha' Jams You Can't Leave Alone" chart.

What does it mean? Not the fortuitous and coincidental nature of my acquisition, mind you, but the words: When there is nothing left to burn, you have to set yourself on fire.

Well, kids, for me this is a pretty direct statement. I mean, I do spend some time involuntarily picturing men in the arctic north who've set fire to everything and are now drawing lengths of rawhide to see who gets shoved in the flaming pile of sleds, dogs and clothing. But I quickly transcend such an image to my usual metaphor: acting. Also: life. Generally: inseparable, when you're doing something right.

As Friend Patrick might put it, fire has been a recurrent symbol in my life lately. Literally and figuratively, come to think of it. I loved my parents' fireplace back in Burke, Virginia, and lots of rituals surrounded it in the winter months. Whenever I get the chance (the last such chance being a rooftop barbecue last Sunday, and prior to that, Camp Nerdly), I put myself in charge of the fire. It's methodical and physical to build, dangerous and unpredictable in practice, but also warming, soothing and inspiring. So perhaps it's natural for me, especially now, to link the notion of fire with acting. There's a great quote from Slings and Arrows about why actors act that I can neither remember, nor find online, but it says something about why anyone would want to return to normal life once they had experienced the kind of truth one can achieve through a successful performance on the stage. That's setting yourself on fire.

As for having nothing left to burn, well, here's a couple of different thoughts on that:
  • Maybe that's the job of the actor, to find that level of stakes and desperation for the appropriate moments on stage. Not every character is despondent, but every good character should want something so badly that he or she comes to a point--at least once--of not knowing what to do about it.

  • Use it.

  • That happens all the time to most actors in America, and dare I say the world. Even when our personal or financial lives aren't a shambles, we tend to work ourselves past all endurance on parts we play until either epiphany or disaster occur. Either we pull off the trick of a phoenix . . . or we don't.

Of course, none of this probably has much of anything to do with what the songwriter(s) intended. But that's the beauty of pop music, isn't it? It means what you most need it to mean at the moment you need it.

When there is nothing left to burn, you have to set yourself on fire.

 
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