A woman hears bad news second-hand about someone with whom she used to be close. Addiction’s involved, or some other kind of self-destructive behavior, something that’s gone on before and been sworn off before, something that contributed to or even caused the end of their friendship.

Hearing the bad news gives the woman, the singer, a “strange sense of mission,” a sense of responsibility persistent through years and separation. She pauses for a rueful memory snapshot of her friend:

She would never run from strangers
She sang alone like a bell will toll

The contradiction indicates how much about the friend is unresolved for the singer. But then she pivots, self-protectively: “Maybe none of this is my problem,” she says, maybe it’s not even true although it wouldn’t be unexpected if it was true and even if it is true don’t I have enough going on in my life without adding the sort of drama and complications my friend used to bring?

The chorus seems to be aimed at the friend, words of encouragement from a distance:

Hold tight, hang tough
Love’s not enough to keep you off that stuff
To save you…

But it’s aimed at the singer, too. She’s talking to herself, reminding herself to resist the attempt to intervene or try to help, how no matter how much she loves or loved her friend she’s never been able to help before and won’t be able to this time.

The second verse is pure deflection, a memory of someone else caught up in addiction but this time an acquaintance, a barfly-type the singer remembers affectionately in an “oh what a character” way. I love that the song makes this leap, moves like someone’s mind grappling with these issues would move.

It’s a temporary diversion, though, and then the chorus rolls around again, steeped in resignation, a prolonged sigh for a friend’s tragic spiral. Love, even tough love, isn’t enough. What you lose isn’t just patience, but the capacity to forgive.

John Gorka wrote the song, but his version sounds like he’s talking about an ex-girlfriend, which isn’t as compelling to me. Plus Maura O’Connell is one of my favorite vocalists in the world, so I’m inclined to prefer her interpretation. I heard she isn’t recording anymore, which is truly a crime, because there are at least 15 or 20 singer-songwriter-type songs I would love her to take a crack at. The album this song is from, Stories, is my favorite of hers. For a while, it along with Disk 1 of The Beautiful South’s Carry On Up the Charts and Everything But the Girl’s Acoustic were the backdrop of every dinner party we gave.

For another, more harrowing take on this theme, see Elizabeth Cook’s “Heroin Addict Sister.”