Empty Nest Songs

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Dropped my only child off at college this weeek, which is one of those things that is not a big deal (inevitable rite of passage, proof you’ve done your job as a parent, etc.) unless you are the one doing it. Some songs that have been helping me though:

  1. “Going Down to Laurel,” Steve Forbert.
    The best expression I know of the youthful bravado and confidence I want my son to be feeling on he embarks on this great adventure, the sense of being glad to be young, glad to be alive, ready to take on all comers. “I’m going down to Laurel, it’s a dirty stinking town/But me I know exactly what I’m going to find.”
  2. “A New Name for Everything,” the Weakerthans.
    Advice I’d want to give him when that youthful bravado and confidence falter, the main thing being to be cautious around advice: “Fire every phrase/They don’t want to work for us anymore.”  “If you come back, bring a new name for everything”–that’s what college is for!
  3. “My Old School,” Steely Dan.
    I’m on record as not being a huge Steely Dan Fan, but this is a great song, and one of the few in the rock and roll canon that will admit to having spent time in college. It gets the details right: “I was smoking with the boys upstairs/When I heard about the whole affair.” It also epitomizes the type of snarky, superior cynicism most of us cultivate and leave behind in school, though Steely Dan never did grow out of it. Everything can be made fun of, and should be! (RIP Walter Becker.)
  4. “Waiting for the Great Leap Forward,” Billy Bragg.
    On the other hand: what shouldn’t be made fun of? College politicized me, though I never did much about it in terms of protests and picket lines. Even at a young age those sorts of group actions didn’t seem to me to make much difference. I’ve been proven wrong many times, so now I say man the barricades for what counts, buddy, and find some friends who will help make the great leap forward finally happen! (Unless of course your politics turn out to be the opposite of mine, in which case we can just argue over the dinner table during breaks.)
  5. “Better Things,” Dar Williams.
    The most hopeful song I know, it’ll do as my envoi for the last 18+ years and salutation for the next 70. “Accept your life and what it brings/I know tomorrow you’ll find better things.” Written by grumpy old man Ray Davies, and though I like his version I prefer Dar’s, who also has her grumpy side though not here. The urgent acoustic guitar figure reminds me of my son in his new dorm room trying to hide his impatience as we were saying goodbye. Guys, I love you, it’s been great, but time to get on with it!

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“Wandering Boy,” Randy Newman

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A grand weeper from Randy’s new album.

A man is on a doorstep saying goodbye to his hosts after a party. It’s an annual party, one he’s been to many times before. A holiday party, say, we’ve been having one of those for 25 years. He’s come to the party with his father; he’s come to the party with his wife; he’s come with his sons and daughters. Tonight he’s here alone but still wishing in these waning moments for the miracle appearance of his youngest son:

Where is my wandering boy tonight
Where is my wandering boy
If you see him, push him toward the light
Where is my wandering boy

There must be 20 songs that feature the phrase “wandering boy,” Irish songs, country songs, an old Carter Family tune. Maybe the man is a songwriter himself, and is familiar with these songs. Maybe the phrase itself gives him some comfort, lends a familiarity and continuity to something he can’t come to grips with.

The man launches into a story about his absent son, remember the time he jumped off the diving board, five years old, laughing like a maniac, Jesus Christ, that kid had no fear! His hosts nod: they have other guests to attend to, they’ve heard the story before. The man has had a few drinks but isn’t so drunk he doesn’t notice the impatience in their eyes. Again, great party, he says. See you next year. But as he drives home he can’t keep his mind from circling back to the son who didn’t show up:

I hope he’s warm and I hope he’s dry
And a stranger’s eye is a friendly eye
And I hope he has someone there by his side
And I hope that he’ll come home

I had a colleague at work whose son was Narcan’d twice in the nine months our project lasted. The first time I was shaken when he told me, I didn’t know what to say. “I’m sorry, my therapist told me to be honest with people,” he said when he noticed my awkwardness. “The kid does enough lying for the whole family.” The second time the colleague let me know in an email. “Was in the hospital all night, Nathan od’d again. Will be in a little late.” I was more prepared to offer sympathy this time but he waved it away. “He’s going to kill himself. I’ve told him, my wife told him, the doctor told him. He doesn’t listen. Not a thing we can do to stop it.”

Maybe that’s not what the song is about. Maybe this guy’s son is just doing a junior year abroad or something. Still a sad song.

“The State I Am In,” Belle and Sebastian

I went to see these guys a week or so ago, accompanied by my son who is heading off for college in September. It was an ordeal to get there, traffic, weather, parking, but the show was great. There were songs from every phase of the band’s 21-year career (Stuart Murdoch, the lead singer/songwriter, mentioned that since they were 21 they could do anything they wanted) and apart from individual highlights like “Another Sunny Day” and this song, what I appreciated most was how much fun Stuart seemed to be having, how much he seemed to be enjoying his own songs, even the sad ones. A man and his catalog!

At one point he wandered into the audience and returned with about 50 people trailing him back up on stage, mostly women who looked exactly like Belle and Sebastian fangirls should look (use your imagination). Stuart danced with them for two songs and then called them all into a huddle so loved ones in the audience could take a group shot. At that point traffic, weather, and parking were all pretty much forgiven.

They sang this as the last song in the set and of the night. (I think there was supposed to be an encore but the opener Andrew Bird went on too long and they ran out of time.) When it began two little girls, maybe 8-10 years old, who I’d noticed earlier sitting with their parents a few rows back came up near the stage and started sway-dancing together. My son next to me was sway-dancing himself, when not snapchatting (he promised not to mention me), and I thought of how I’d bought Tigermilk, the album the song comes from, when it was generally released in 1999, the year he was born. He was a fussy baby (understatement!) but the album seemed to calm him. We’d put it on and rock him in our arms around the living room:

I gave myself to sin
I gave myself to Providence
Been there and back again
The state that I am in

What’s it about? Love, resilience, accommodation, not taking even the serious things too seriously. (We must have all heard that “I gave myself to God/There was a pregnant pause before he said okay” line a thousand times, but it still got a laugh in concert.) Mostly though: the circle of life. Or maybe its necessary passages. Can you tell I’m in a mood?

Recent Songs #4

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This week, new songs by familiar voices…kind of a boy’s club, sorry about that!

  1. “What’s That Perfume You Wear?” Jens Lekman. As usual the girl is “gone forever” by the time we enter the picture but her perfume lingers on like “the promise of something sweet that could never be.” The whole CD is sorta icky sentimental like that but in this case the slick dance-y production helps the song rise above it. Love the second verse about remembering his girlfriend coming out a hotel shower smelling of expensive shampoo. (The slick dance-y production works less well on the songs about male friendship, which is a brave and unusual topic to take on but they are also sorta icky sentimental in execution.)
    ***
  2. “If We Were Vampires,” Jason Isbell. Gorgeous meditation on love and mortality that finds time for a joke about taking up smoking if you knew you were never going to die. “Your questions like directions to the truth,” what a heck of a nice thing to say to someone, and I keep singing the “Maybe time running out is a gift/I’ll work hard until the end of my shift” couplet in my head. It’s the standout track on the new album, which is better (in my mind) than “Something More than Free” but nowhere near “Southeastern.” There’s a familiarity about the themes (country boy out of place in the city, guy stuck in his dead-end town, teenage love not holding up to the passage of time) that the striking phrases and passionate singing don’t totally erase. On the other hand the songs where Jason tries most to stretch are the worst (“White Man’s World,” “Anxiety”). So that is not a good sign.
    ***
  3. “Leaving LA,” Father John Misty. Third in a row here of disappointing new albums. A hipster railing at himself for falling in love was so much more compelling than a hipster railing at the world for craving entertainment to distract them from their empty lives. This song, though, has that combination of self-loathing and other-loathing with a fragile trust in love to redeem both tendencies that made “Honeybear’ such an interesting listen. I wouldn’t call this an interesting listen, necessarily–I find I need to take a deep breath before I put it on, here’s my brilliant friend again who’s going to talk my ear off–but the suffocation is part of the point I suppose. Is Father John really so famous that he can rail against being famous? The beginning of the beginning of the end of his career he sees toward the end sounds kind of accurate; I’m not sure how much of the rest of the ride I’ll stick around for. As we Philip Roth fans know, that you can anticipate every possible criticism of your work doesn’t make those criticisms any less valid.
    ***
  4. “Some Things Just Don’t Change,” Little Steven. Here is a familiar but horrible voice. All right, it’s not that bad but there’s no question Southside Johnny sang this better back in 1977 (and probably yesterday at some beach casino show). Still, Steven wrote it and it’s a great lost song, worth hearing again. In Rolling Stone Steven summed up this sound “soul horns meet rock guitar” and wondered why he didn’t write more songs like it. Probably because it was so frustrating to watch his buddy Bruce churn out five of them as a warm-up exercise to writing the day’s “real” songs, and three of those five were as good as Steve’s best. Kind of thing has to take a psychic toll.
    ***
  5. “Postcard from Paris,” Glen Campbell. Talk about icky sentimental! And those background vocals! But I first heard it after a couple of drinks and it just killed me. Holds up sober but may make you want to pour yourself a glass of something, it has that kind of stoic melancholy that’s a lightning rod for all manner of regrets not directly related to the lyrics. Written by John Denver and I will take it at face value and not indulge in my own icky sentimentality and bring in the Alzheimer’s backstory. I’m sure you can find that on another blog out there.

“Hurricane Party,” James McMurtry

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Can you love a song just for one line?

I do:

I don’t want another drink
I only want that last one again…

Speaking as a guy who enjoys a few drinks occasionally, that so much captures the experience. It’s not as much you want to get drunker, as you want to re-experience the transition to being drunk. But sadly you have to sober up to do that.

In this song the line is spoke by an old barfly at a bar in New Orleans. (I’m projecting the New Orleans part but that’s just the way I imagine the scene.) A hurricane is on its way, and for a few hours before there’s been a hurricane party at the bar. All those people have left for the safety of their homes but this guy can’t get himself to move, to return to his solitary house. But it’s not just inertia that makes him stay put. It’s also a desire to extend the moment, to ride a little longer on the excitement the impending storm puts into his life:

Just a fleeting sense of that rare suspense I once thought made the world go round

There was a great article in the New York Times Book Review a while back that spoke of how the Louisiana-born writer Walker Percy regarded hurricanes as therapeutic, beneficial. Percy’s point of view was they take people out of their everyday lives; they provide a focus and sense of purpose. It happens up here in the North with snowstorms, the shared experience of in a small way facing something uncontrollable and elemental. Fun and stimulating, right up until the moment your roof collapses.

I saw James McMurtry on a bill with Richard Buckner. It was a wordy evening. I hear James is great with a band but this night he was solo and let’s say the songs did not distinguish themselves melodically, although Buckner was the slightly more boring performer.

Those lyrics though! Like this from a more recent song, another internal monologue, this one by a guy driving to (hopefully) meet a lost love:

I’ve got a cup of black of black coffee so I don’t get lazy
I’ve got a rattle in the dashboard driving me crazy..

Every single car I’ve owned has at some point had a rattle in the dashboard that’s driven me crazy!

NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has Trump not gotten around to defunding them yet?) predicts an above average Atlantic hurricane season, with a potential for 5-9 storms. Mix up a drink, sit at the window, watch the sky darken. And most important of all, find a companion or two beforehand, because as James says here, there’ll be no one to talk to once the lines go down.

 

Fever Songs

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I had a fever last week. Literally: chills, night sweats, repetitive dreams, a general marshmallow-y sense of the world. This made me think of fever songs. The most famous eponymous ones, by Eddie Cooley and Otis Blackwell (as sung by Peggy Lee) and Bruce (as sung by Southside Johnny), offer a sexy, smoldering take. Smoldering, okay, there were times when I felt everything around me was melting at the edges, but sexy? The experience wasn’t entirely unpleasant (that marshmallow-y sense of the world, how good everyday health felt when the fever broke) but definitely not sexy. Neil Young claimed in the “Decade” liner notes he wrote “Down by the River” while in bed with a fever and I do hear that in the song, the spooky vocal, the droning guitar. Could never understand why he’d want to shoot someone who dragged him over the rainbow, isn’t that a good thing?,  but it probably made sense to Neil’s feverish mind. Roger Waters and David Gilmour’s “Comfortably Numb” (as sung by…which one is Pink?) mentions having a fever in the lyric and again captures the spaciness, the one step remove from reality, although as others have mentioned it seems more about drugs or facism or a drug that induces facism than lying in bed with a thermometer in your mouth waiting for your Mom to bring some orange juice. There are a few War on Drugs songs I’ve heard on the radio (WXPN in Philadelphia, my favorite station, fund raising right now if you are so inclined!) that would be a good backdrop to a fever, and I’m sure there are live cuts of Van Morrison in full yarragh mode repeating the same phrase 27 times that would pretty much replicate the way my mind was working around 1 am on Wednesday morning. I had a fever in college and went to a film class where my professor showed “Metropolis” while playing Philip Glass music loudly, as close to a Timothy Leary experience as I’ve ever had. Ranker.com lists 92 songs that have “fever” in the title but I’ve never heard of two-thirds of them so perhaps fevers are not as inspirational or compelling as songwriters think. I’m sure I’d recognize way more songs that have “sun” in the title.

Anyway, feeling better now, thanks.