I once made a tape of songs I thought would be good company for a sleepless 3 AM. I called it “Dark Night of the Soul,” but it wasn’t unremittingly depressing. Sure, there were some doomed relationship songs (‘The End of a Love Affair” by Frank Sinatra, “Indoor Fireworks” by Elvis Costello), some songs of self-pity and self-flagellation (“Nobody’s Arms,” Rodgers and Hart by way of Bobby Short, “Tonight I Think I’m Gonna Go Downtown” by Joe Ely), the requisite song of suicidal despar (“Gloomy Sunday,” of course).
But there were also some songs that for me captured the 3 AM sitting-in-the-dark sense of the world’s infinite mystery and unknowability (“Linden Arden Stole the Highlights,” by Van Morrison, “Belle” by Al Green) and songs that offered not so much uplift as an exhausted suggestion of where uplift might lie (“Drift Away,” Rod Stewart version, “Finishing the Hat” from Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George”). And since many of my 3 AM’s have involved a glass of something, there had to be a song of rambling drunken introspection (“A Song For You,” by Gram Parsons–he sounds drunk to me at least).
The mood I was going for wasn’t sadness but something more ruminative, contemplative, semi-mystical. I wanted songs that with intimations, songs with some road miles on them, songs of wisdom or of wisdom’s if-you’re-lucky surrogate acceptance. The somewhat-funny comedian Martin Mull used to have a routine about how silly the concept of the blues was, how if you were happy why would you want to hear sad songs and if you were sad listening to someone sadder would be the last thing on your mind. I don’t know, I think one of the best things music gives you is an articulation of how someone else going through what you’re going through got through it, a bit of purchase as you climb your own mountains.
These days I am less likely to get out of bed if I have a sleepless 3 AM, but I still play music in my head to put myself back to sleep (I assume everyone does this–don’t tell me if not). I have a short list of go-to’s: “Thunder Road” by Bruce Springsteen, “Scenes from an Italian Resturant” by Billy Joel, “Old Friends” by Simon and Garfunkel and “Sweet Baby James” by James Taylor. If I’m still awake after all those, “Tangled Up in Blue” by Bob Dylan and, inexplicably, “Walking in Rhythm” by the Blackbyrds. To each their own lullabyes, I guess.