Lindsey Buckingham's Out of the Cradle album (1992) is a painfully personal, and deeply introspective work. It chronicles many of Lindsey's inner-battles and inner-dialogues about self-doubt, insecurity, personal and musical integrity, heartaches, and family deaths. It is an album that solidifies Lindsey's consecrated position as a "tortured soul," as this shy and sensitive man probes his troubled heart for answers and strength he knows he must find from within, to begin to heal himself.
And though the struggles are difficult, it is through songs like "Turn It On," that we can see that Lindsey is fighting to make "the positive choice," and he may yet ultimately win his battles to accept himself, accept his sorrows, and understand that wounds can heal and life must go on.
While Lindsey has discussed the motivation for several of the songs on the album, including the stunningly personal "Street of Dreams," "Turn It On" is a song he has rarely discussed in the media, nor a song he seems to have ever performed in concert to date. Perhaps this is because the events that inspired it were simply still too close to his heart. Just about the only hint of his feelings and motivation for the song came in Lindsey's BAM Magazine interview in 1992, where he would only say that a song on the album, besides "Street of Dreams," is about a family tragedy.
Lindsey's older brother Greg died suddenly during the making of the album, and we all seem to be in agreement that "Turn It On" is that other song he mentioned about a family tragedy. It is a song about learning to cope with that death, which may also have prompted Lindsey to examine other deaths and losses in his life - the death of his father when he was quite young, and before he could show his dad the success he would find; the loss of dreams and love through two long and tortuous romantic break-ups; the loss of another great love - his artistic vision, for a time. Losses of all kinds can leave gaping wounds that are repeatedly torn open when new tragedies are experienced. Family and loss were very much on Lindsey's mind throughout the album, so I think all of those thoughts are inexorably linked in this song.
But "Turn It On" isn't ultimately a sad song dwelling on death, abandonment, or disillusionment. It is a song in which Lindsey searches himself for a way to deal with loss. He is searching to find a way to "turn it on," and move on, by drawing strength from those people and things that are closest and most important to him.
The phrase "Turn it on" is the essence and the message of the song. With each uttered repetition of that phrase, one senses Lindsey is building his strength and focusing his thoughts. As fate litters tragedies in the path of life, one may often find oneself in a position where one needs to "turn it on," or dig deeper inside themselves to find the fortitude to overcome the most difficult life events - "What doesn't kill us, only makes us stronger." A performer preparing himself to go out on stage may also "turn it on," or transform himself from the regular guy into "the entertainer" who affects and influences his audience. It is a combination of those two thoughts that Lindsey seems to pull together, as he comes to the realization that a way to deal with his own personal tragedies, is to lessen the tragedies of others through his own gifts. Lindsey can seek comfort from, and pay tribute to, those he's lost, by doing what they would want him to do: rediscover and apply his artistic instincts to heal others with his work, and believe in himself the way those lost loved ones, his present loved ones, and his audiences believe in him.
Now, someone has left you alone
Somehow you will carry on
You are the man
Do what you can
Just go out and turn it on
"Now someone has left you alone . . . ." He's lost someone he loves very much, his brother. But death is nothing new to him. He knows that while the pain may seem unbearable, he will somehow be able to get through this. He's not yet sure how that will happen, but he is imploring himself to get through this.
"You are the man" may be an allusion to the societal pressures that a man is supposed to be strong, so he feels an outside pressure to feign a strength and stability that doesn’t exist in his heart and mind. It may also refer to something more personal. "You da man!" is an affectionate phrase many use to pay tribute to and express pride in a friend or loved one. Could this be something his brother said to him? That could be a phrase Lindsey might recall with great warmth as he tries to draw strength to "turn on" his survival instincts to deal with his brother's loss.
"Do what you can . . . ." He's telling himself that he must do the best he can in whatever way possible, to try to cope. And Lindsey has often talked about the cathartic nature of music-making in his life, so writing songs - perhaps more specifically, writing this song - is what Lindsey turned to, to deal with the loss and explore ways of coming to terms with it.
You can fight, you can pray, you can reach for the sky
You can heal someone's soul, you don't even know why
Turn it on
There are a number of ways by which Lindsey can deal with the loss and search for strength, and he seems to be detailing those avenues that he can and probably already has traveled down.
"You can heal someone's soul, you don't even know why." He switches from thoughts of healing his own pain, to thoughts of his ability to heal the pain of others. It would seem to refer to his ability to bring out the best in others and heal wounds in others (most likely through his musical talents). We know from several interviews that he has been a source of inspiration to many people. He helped Mick gain back the self-confidence that had eroded through the final incarnation and disbanding of Fleetwood Mac. He helped John Stewart put together an album by not only providing him with some artistic direction, but also providing him with tremendous support that helped John regain his confidence and focus again on his artistic visions. And Lindsey’s fans would certainly attest to a strong emotional connection with Lindsey's work - a strong sense of suffering, but also of healing and coping. Lindsey has the ability to help people to see things in a totally different light, but while this ability may come naturally to him, he doesn't quite seem able to understand or explain that ability.
He may also be recalling past experiences where he was able to provide support and strength to family and friends to ease some discomfort or pain, without necessarily understanding how to use those same abilities to ease his own pain. This might be seen as a question of, 'who heals the Healer?' Lindsey seems to have come to the conclusion that he has to heal himself, and he has to figure out how to do that. He just needs to "turn it on," but he is still searching for the strength and motivation to do that.
Now, someone is dead and gone
The hurt that you feel makes you strong
Time is allowed
Make him proud
Just go out and turn it on
"Now someone is dead and gone, the hurt that you feel makes you strong." The hurt caused by death is a powerful force that can either be allowed to eat you alive and take over your life, or it can be integrated into your character and provide a deep source of wisdom and strength when facing life's great challenges and losses. This verse seems to be written from a place of more confidence and experience and may in fact be a reflection on how he still is able to draw strength from his dad and the devastation of losing him. He assuredly hopes that his dad is proud of the way he has handled adversity and has tried to make positive choices in his life and with his art, from great despair.
"Time is allowed . . . ." That kind of perspective and healing Lindsey found and still draws upon with his dad’s death takes time to develop, and he appears to be trying to reassure himself that time is what he needs to give himself to deal with Greg's death as well. It's going to be a difficult, and in some ways, it's a never-ending journey, but he needs to use his time and his pain to accept the loss, and better himself so that Greg will be proud of him too. This is the motivation he was still looking for in the last verse. Now he sees that he can "turn it on" and show Greg, as he still shows his dad, that Greg’s positive influence, his strength - his spirit - is still with Lindsey and guiding him.
You can love, you can hate, you can laugh, you can cry
You can run for your life, you can live, you can die
Turn it on
There are many ways to deal with pain, and many phases to pass through on the journey to healing. And again, he is telling himself to 'turn it on' - carry on through each of these emotions and each of these phases, and keep this loss from becoming something that paralyzes him with despair. 'Turn it on' and make this loss into a journey into self-discovery, strength and wisdom.
You can hurt, you can heal, you can reach for the light
You could trust in yourself if you'd give it a try
Turn it on
In this last verse, he knows what he needs to do to cope with Greg's loss in the most healthy way possible, and he knows that he has the ability to inspire others with his words and his work. But with the phrase - "you could trust in yourself if you'd give it a try" - he allows a glimpse into his heart and mind that seems to show he is having some difficulty convincing himself to trust his own feelings. He knows what steps he needs to take, but actually taking those steps is the hardest part of all, because trusting himself is something he has struggled with. The band activities and public reception of Fleetwood Mac's albums during the Tusk through Mirage periods, and the heart-wrenching but necessary decision to end a love affair in 1983 that he wanted to remain committed to, really shook Lindsey's confidence to his core. Regaining that confidence and that ability to trust himself and his instincts about anything again, took years of soul-searching and struggling. (That struggle is vividly documented in "Street of Dreams.")
But with many final shouts of "turn it on" to end the song, we're left with the knowledge that he's going to do it. He's going to be okay. Life does go on after loss. If he faces the loss, accepts it, and always allows himself time to hurt and heal, his pain will lessen. He can't ever make the pain disappear, but he can focus on the love and warmth those relationships brought him, and can continue to bring him. He can make that love the focus of his thoughts and the force behind his own healing powers - his music - this song. It won't be easy, but because he's a strong person, and he is able to see that he does still have the support of his brother and father in spirit, he'll make it.
As is always the case with his songs, Lindsey doesn't just use his lyrics to communicate the emotion of the song. He uses his instruments - his music, and his voice - to enforce the meaning of the words and create a definite atmosphere to set the mood.
The music is an optimistic tune with bright guitar strumming. It is a tune that is at odds with the sadness in many of the words, but reflects the ultimately positive and optimistic hope of "turning it on" and surviving. It is also a tune that ultimately lets us know, before the words do, that Lindsey's going to be alright. In fact, the rhythm and strumming throughout, gives one the feeling of great anticipation for something good that is going to come. - probably a reflection of Lindsey’s deepest hopes in the midst of great tragedy.
He sings the verses in a voice strained with emotion. But he sings, "turn it on," in the chorus in a strong voice. He draws out "on," the effect of which, is to agonizingly wring out the devastation behind the words, and also emphasize the action that he must take. The background vocals are many and layered, the effect of which is to conjure the notion of a choral group attempting to lift the song and singer up to a positive place. The brief but rapidly picked guitar solo following the final verse, and the guitar picking that echoes each of the final shouts of "turn it on!" as the song fades out, also serves to underscore the action that Lindsey knows he has to take, and it ends the song on an almost joyous note as each repeat of that refrain shows us Lindsey’s growing resolve to "turn it on" and survive and celebrate those past and what lies ahead.
The words alone are touching, but combined with the music and the voice, it is truly inspirational. A lovely song.
(The interpretations to these lyrics were compiled through discussions on the message boards of the Penguin, The Ledge. It is entirely possible that the artists had something completely different in mind.)