(Y’all know where to find the lyrics and videos, so I won’t bother with the links…)
Gordon Lightfoot, “The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald”
Admittedly, not heart-rending as some others, but I like it for one of the most existential lyrics ever written–”Does any one know where the love of God goes, when the waves turn the minutes to hours?”
Carrie Underwood, “So Small” and “Just A Dream”
Yikes–these are two songs that might cause you to run off into a ditch if you’re listening in your car. Sure, most country and pop music is producer-driven, and especially in country the artist isn’t responsible for the songs they sing, but for all that–so what, if it does what it set out to do? I first heard “So Small” live on an award show and I posted on a message board “Damn you, Carrie Underwood, for making me cry”…My daughters had a CD of Carnival Ride and I listened to it on a drive to Kansas for a storm chase. By this time, I was getting used to war songs, but “Just A Dream” was different–that one line “I was counting on forever”…
Garth Brooks, “The Dance”
Getting all the country out of the way? This is one song that is actually diminished by the video, which goes over events and icons in the lives of most baby-boomers. Garth usually exhibits the belief that anything worth doing is worth overdoing, but if you just listen to the song…when Dale Sr. died, I just knew that this song was going to be played constantly, and I was right. Although, like all analogies, the lyrics weren’t a perfect fit.
Subset: “Merry Effing Christmas”, (or, “Stockings and Mistletoe aren’t the only things that hang over the holidays…”)
“I’ll Be Home For Christmas” “Have Yourselves A Merry Little Christmas”
Pull the turkey out of the oven, blow the pilot light out…It has taken me most of my adult life for Christmas and I to come to an understanding. I remember in high school as class was letting out for the break that ‘It’s time for me to get depressed’, and while that was due to a lack of girlfriends, I had plenty to use for triggers as I got older. Oppressive commercialism, general overwork, naked greed and a general disdain of the reason for the season. While these two songs are about not being at home, I still can feel one way or the other about what is at home…
Johnny Cash, “Hurt”
I had heard Nine Inch Nails’ version and it was a good song, one of a collection of despairing songs from either defiant or resigned points of view. But to come across Cash’s version–and to see his video, him and June, The First Family of American music…you hoped they knew their God, because that meeting was getting close. And having seen them since 1968, for crying out loud, it’s just a reminder of mortality.
Elton John, “Someone Saved My Life Tonight”
A song where I had no idea at the time what the backstory was, but the orchestration and the way Elton delivered it made it work. I really had time to listen to it one night, a night off my graveyard shift job where I had to stay awake, so just me and the radio on a rainy early morning.
Subset: Album:”The Who By Numbers”
Yeah, Quadrophenia is a great album, but that deals with general teenage angst. I find adult angst to be more interesting! A reviewer once wrote this album seemed to be Pete Townshend’s suicide letter, it’s as clear as a freaking bell to me. Pete was deep into alcoholism, but typically he could write effectively about it. (Eight years later, he backed up the bottle with a heroin jones, but H isn’t as conducive to creativity. Or so I hear.) “However Much I Booze” is so expository that Pete had do the vocals, because Roger Daltrey wouldn’t touch it.
“Imagine A Man” and “They Are All In Love” and “How Many Friends”…not everyone deals with addiction, but everyone gets old and cynical and Pete had those emotions covered, too. Sure, for the most part this album is as depressing as hell, but it also clarifies–if you look hard enough and are willing to acknowledge it, you can see the devil. Now, what are you going to do? I’ve said any number of times that Quadrophenia and By Numbers saved my life.
“Bravado” and “The Pass” are right up there in terms of evoking heartbreak and empathy, but I like “Afterimage” because Neil Peart wrote it in first person, and it’s clear that this song was personal (they’ve never played it in concert). About the death of a friend, the ones left behind, and how can you deal? Alex Lifeson’s guitar solo fit the mood of confusion and anger that has no chance of being directed.
For two days after my dad died, I was running around with my head cut off, but once I got five minutes to myself, I played “Afterimage”, like I knew I needed to ever since it had happened. I needed to be in the path of that music, those words, that emotion. Mind you, it solved nothing to hear it, it just had to be done. (The other things I needed to do were to see a tornado that spring, and get back to our hometown, St. Louis. Once these were accomplished, life began to approach appropriateness.)
Subset: Jeff Buckley, Album: “Grace”
I had never heard of him until I read Neil Peart’s overwhelming praise of him–fourteen years after Buckley’s death. Turns out, I had heard “Last Goodbye” without knowing it and I remembered liking it. Make no mistake, by no stretch do “Last Goodbye” and “Grace” make heartbreak seem enticing, but Buckley sings so eloquently and flowingly that what he felt immediately seems so familiar. Buckley, to use a baseball term, was a “five-tool player”, sing, write, play guitar, arrange…
…and interpret. Never heard Leonard Cohen before or since (to my detriment), but his “Hallelujah” and Buckley’s recording of it is one of those moments that paralyze you –you can’t move, and can’t imagine ever desiring to move again. Buckley claims his interpretation of Hallelujah is ‘orgasm’, and one term for orgasm is ‘little death’. Maybe, maybe not, but this is a big death, death of love and relationship, inevitable but for all that, necessary to honor it and watch it die.
Retire the award:
Jeff Buckley, “I Know We Could Be So Happy Baby (If We Wanted to Be)”
Grace was a polished, complete recording. Buckley never got to record another legit album, but a collection entitled Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk contained this song in incomplete form. Unofficial recordings of the song with his band exist, but to be honest this song works better as the demo version, no bass, no drums, no production, just voice and multi-tracked guitar.
The three songs from Grace that I mentioned are are death-of-relationship songs, deep and painful, but the way Buckley singsI Know We Could Be So Happy Baby is different–passionate, both thought-out and raw, what made Buckley so good–and such a loss.
My heart is breaking. I know it. Irretrievably broken. I know it.
This will kill me. I know it.
The guitar–one track just keeping time, replacing drums, the other a rhythm or atmospheric track that sounds like an autoharp, to be honest–were perfect for the emotion of the lyrics and how they were sung. Like Townshend, and Lifeson especially, Buckley knew what to play and when to play it.
The fact that Buckley passed on so soon is a great loss, one that I take personally, for some irrational reason. At the same time, I am eternally grateful for what he left, and thankful also for all The Who have done and what RUSH continues to create.