Nightly Song
Musings on Songs that Strike a Chord Tonight


Written and Performed by Bob Dylan. You can hear a live version here. You can find the lyrics here.

“John Brown” makes a fitting Memorial Day song, one to come after we sweep up from the parades and put away the speakers’ microphones, to remind of us of the deeply personal sacrifice made when our young go off to fight. And a song to make us think before asking one more soldier to pick up a weapon overseas.

It is a simple tale of a mother and son, one that unfurls under the vague memories of a “good old fashion world” as a mother sees her boy off to war and then returns to welcome him home. As she regales him  on her son’s departure, Mrs. Brown speaks for all of us. She hugs her son and says, “Oh son, you look so fine, I’m glad you’re a son of mine.” Wouldn’t we do the same as that proud mother,  

Tellin’ ev’ryone in the neighborhood:
“That’s my son that’s about to go, he’s a soldier now, you know”
She made well sure her neighbors understood

We love our sons and daughters, but what do we ask of our soldier sons and daughters? At its most basic, we ask them to go into battle and kill or be killed.  Why do we ask? For land? For oil? For geopolitics? For freedom? In Leonard Cohen’s “Story of Isaac,” he likens the leaders and parents who send their children to war with the sacrifice that Abraham would make of Isaac,

You who build these altars now
to sacrifice these children,
you must not do it anymore.
A scheme is not a vision

In the more strident “Masters of War,” Dylan condemns the men (and it seems as if it is always men) who sit behind the desks and send others to war like the Chicken Hawks behind so much of our recent military incursions. “John Brown” operates on a much more human scale, one not made of policy and analysis, but tenderness and emotions. Dylan sings of a mother who loves her son, who hugs him and encourages him.

When he’s far from her embrace, when the fiery exhortations of the talking heads and the patriotic parades fade, what does John Brown feel,

“Oh, and I thought when I was there, God, what am I doing here?
I’m a-tryin’ to kill somebody or die tryin’”

No romance. No ambitions. Just survive. This is not an American scenario; it’s a human tragedy. For whom do our soldiers face, but other young men and women making their parents and nations proud:

“But the thing that scared me most was when my enemy came close
And I saw that his face looked just like mine”

War inalterably changes John Brown. Disfigured by bombs, his own mother does not recognize him:

Oh his face was all shot up and his hand was all blown off
And he wore a metal brace around his waist
He whispered kind of slow, in a voice she did not know
While she couldn’t even recognize his face!

On Memorial Day, the television stations will feature flags and parades. Every politician will offer a speech on the virtue of our warriors. We will pay fitting tribute to their sacrifice; we will fittingly praise their courage and bravery. All true, but we do not begin to know and cannot understand. Understanding evolves from relating experience to what we already know, but how can we know what is so foreign to us?

If we are to honor our veterans, let’s pay true respect, let’s value their lives and sacrifice. Let’s refuse to send them off to die in the name of some political theory, some plan hatched in a conference room in Washington where John Brown is but a bit in a spreadsheet. Drop the rhetoric, the bombast, the theories and ask, what battle is worth the los not of our men and women, but of our sons and daughters, of my son, my daughter?


Dylan wrote “John Brown” in 1962 and first performed it on October 15 of that year. He stopped playing it in the early sixties and it did not reappear in concert until 1987 and did not make it onto an officially released recording until the MTV Unplugged album recorded in 1994 and release in 1995. It subsequently appeared on the album Live at the Gaslight 1962.


Early next month, a group of lawyers will gather at Fordham Law School for a symposium on Bob Dylan and the Law. There’s a certain irony to this confab since Dylan’s so deeply wary of all institutions, especially powerful ones that wield the law. In Dylan’s songs, the legal system does not meet out justice; instead, it becomes a corrupt, often blind instrument of oppression designed to prop up the powerful and the wealthy. At the same time, a conference on Dylan and the law makes sense since it is a recurring theme in his songs ad appropriate as with each passing day corporate interests seem to gain at the expense of the individual.

Dylan’s sense of jurisprudence rails against corruption, arbitrariness and the use of judicial powers to oppress and crush individuals. There’s the 1963 song, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” which eloquently tells the story of a kitchen maid killed by William Zanzinger “with a cane that he twirled around his diamond ring finger/ At a Baltimore hotel society gath’rin’.” The greatest crime comes not in the murder, but in the courtroom as the final verse makes clear:

In the courtroom of honor, the judge pounded his gavel
To show that all’s equal and that the courts are on the level
And that the strings in the books ain’t pulled and persuaded
And that even the nobles get properly handled
Once that the cops have chased after and caught ’em
And that the ladder of law has no top and no bottom
Stared at the person who killed for no reason
Who just happened to be feelin’ that way without warnin’
And he spoke through his cloak, most deep and distinguished
And handed out strongly, for penalty and repentance
William Zanzinger with a six-month sentence
Oh, but you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears
Bury the rag deep in your face
For now’s the time for your tears

In another early song ripped from the headlines, Dylan sang of Emmett Till, a young black man from Chicago who was killed in Mississippi for supposedly flirting with a white girl. As in Hattie Carroll, the tragedy of the death only grows when the case reaches the courtroom. Interesting, the song understands the legal tensions of the day where the Federal government pressured the States to deliver justice:

And then to stop the United States of yelling for a trial
Two brothers they confessed that they had killed poor Emmett Till
But on the jury there were men who helped the brothers commit this awful crime
And so this trial was a mockery, but nobody seemed to mind

There is the popular “Hurricane” (“the trial was a pig-circus”) and the tale of corruption made all the more outrageous by the tenderness of the singing in “Seven Curses.” A girl’s father is arrested for stealing a horse and she rides straight away to plea for mercy from the judge. He dismisses the idea that money can save her father, instead demanding that she sleep with him. The father pleads with her daughter to spurn the judge, but the daughter’s love for her father exceeds her revulsion for the judge. She submits that night only to find the judge never kept his part of the bargain. “She saw that hangin’ branch a-bendin’/She saw her father’s body broken.” She then issues the seven curses on the judge that give the song its title.

We get corrupt judges in “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” (“The hangin’ judge came in unnoticed and was being wined and dined” and later, “He went to get the hangin’ judge, but the hangin’ judge was drunk”). In “Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way,” we meet the biased judge ready to collapse:

The judge, he holds a grudge
He’s gonna call on you
But he’s badly built
And he walks on stilts
Watch out he don’t fall on you   

In “Jokerman,” Dylan sings of a perverse world where riflemen stalk “the sick and the lame” yet the courts offer no salvation, “False-hearted judges dying in the webs that they spin.”

As if the corruption wasn’t bad enough, Dylan finds a system that’s arbitrary and oblivious to the need for justice. In “Idiot Wind,” “Your corrupt ways finally made you blind.”  “Desolation Row” tells of the “blind commissioner.”  In “Hard Rain,“ the “executioner’s face is always well hidden.” In “Joey,” the sentencing becomes a joke:

“What time is it?” said the judge to Joey when they met
“Five to ten,” said Joey. The judge says, “That’s exactly what you get”
In the surrealistic recasting of an old Charlie Patton song, “High Water” tells of a flood of biblical proportions carrying way people’s lives. In the midst of this destruction, we see justice in action where a man’s life has no meaning:

They got Charles Darwin trapped out there on Highway Five
Judge says to the High Sheriff,
“I want him dead or alive
Either one, I don’t care”

Dylan sees a world where justice is perverted, individuals oppressed by a system that promises to protect them. So Rubin Carter cannot get a fair trial (“All of Rubin’s cards were marked in advance”), the Emmett Till trial a joke and in “I Shall Be Released,” we meet a man

Who swears he’s not to blame
All day long I hear him shout so loud
Crying out that he was framed

In the obscure early 70’s ballad of “George Jackson,” the prisoner “wouldn’t take shit from no one/He wouldn’t bow down or kneel” and that, the song argues, led to his death.

            In the opening of “Workingman’s Blues #2,” Dylan sings of the imbalances in our society,

The buyin’ power of the proletariat’s gone down
Money’s gettin’ shallow and weak
The place I love best is a sweet memory
It’s a new path that we trod
They say low wages are a reality
If we want to compete abroad

Just like the wealthy make out at the expense of the Hattie Carroll’s of the world and the real criminals “are free to drink martinis and watch the sun rise,” the workingman loses out to the needs of the corporation. The system served by the legal process is corrupt; “money doesn’t talk, it swears.” It’s the world where “business drink my wine” yet “none of them along the line know what any of it is worth.”  It’s the world where “advertising signs they con/You into thinking you’re the one/That can do what’s never been done.” It’s the world where Hollis Brown sees his crops sees no hope and the Masters of War “hide behind desks” and grow fat on their profits while the likes of John Brown do their bidding and come home bandaged and damaged with only a few medals to show for his sacrifice. To John Brown’s horror, when he sees the enemy, “his face looked just like mine.” The solider is but fodder for the interest of the war machinery, a pawn in their game as much as the poor white man who shot Medgar Evars down.  It’s the businessmen from Taos who turn Billy the Kid’s best friend, Pat Garret against him.

Dylan does not seek power, merely fairness, an equality. In “Dear Landlord”, he pleads, “don’t put a price on my soul.” In the end, all he asks is:

If you don’t underestimate me
I won’t underestimate you

No wonder Dylan champions outlaws, from his take on Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd” to John Wesley Harding to Billy the Kid to Joey Gallo. The outlaws are the individual who buck the system, who follow an honest code, thus the urging, “to live outside the law, you must be honest.” John Wesley Harding “was never known to hurt an honest man” and “no charge held against him could they prove.” However, he was a “friend to the poor” and “opened man a door.” Pretty Boy Floyd had “every crime in Oklahoma added to his name.” Yet he as the one leaving a thousand dollar bill under a poor farmer’s plate and delivering the whole carload of groceries for the families on relief.

            What’s a man to do? In the early song, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” the young Dylan goes out into the world and makes a record of the horrors and atrocities he sees. He readies to set out again, an apocalyptic version of Whitman, ready to sing his song:

And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin

The search sung about in “Hard Rain” is the same search described in when Dylan sings of Dignity:

So many roads, so much at stake
So many dead ends, I’m at the edge of the lake
Sometimes I wonder what it’s gonna take
To find dignity

In the more recent song, “Red River Shore,” the aging rover looks back on his life and declares, “I’ve tried not to ever hurt anybody/And stay out of a life of crime.”

Maybe we can roam the fringes like Pretty Boy Floyd or John Wesley Harding, trying to make things right. Maybe we can be the artist singing of injustice, shining a light on the horrors we pretend not to see. Or maybe it’s enough to not hurt anybody and avoid a life of crime.

And if there’s justice, maybe it requires us to be free of the system that is supposed to deliver justice. Think of the vision from the “Drifter’s Escape,”

Just then a bolt of lightning
Struck the courthouse out of shape
And while ev’rybody knelt to pray
The drifter did escape


If you cannot make it up to Fordham for the symposium on Dylan and the law, you can find more connections on the web. In 2006, Alex Long of the Oklahoma City University Law School published a paper, “[Insert Song Lyrics Here]: The Uses and Misuses of Popular Music Lyrics in Legal Writing,” that found that many legal opinions cite music lyrics and that Bob Dylan’s lyrics appear more frequently than any other songwriter. The New York Times followed up with an article looking at Justice Robert’s use of Dylan lyrics in his judicial writings. In 2002, the New Yorker wrote a brief article on New York Law School professor Michael Perlin, who took to using Dylan lyrics in the titles of his legal essays. You can find many blogs about Dylan and the law, including an article at Talk Left, a list of favorite Dylan civil rights songs at Bruce’s Journal, and this article How Dylan Shapes the Law. And one attorney, Carol Schlitt, wrote an article on how Dylan’s jurisprudence influences her practice of the law.



Written and performed by Steve Forbert. You can listen to a live version here and here. You can buy the song from iTunes here and the album, Alive on Arrival here. You can find the lyrics here.

Our connections to individual songs can be intensely personal. A song might be no more than white noise to one person and yet to another it can be like a punch to the chest that stops the heart and snatches the breath. So it is for me with Steve Forbert’s “Going Down to Laurel.” Released in late 1978, I had been living in Ireland at the time and don’t remember hearing it until the summer of 1979 when I returned to the States. It was the summer before my senior year of college; much of the music I fed on in high school had grown stale and began giving way to new acts like the Ramones and the Clash that would become new favorites. Here came this bright-eyed folkie, full of verve and fun, an undeniable energy synched with the rhythm of my heart.

The single performance of a song multiplies as each listener’s particular set of experiences transforms the song in each listener’s mind. Steve Forbert recorded this song in Nashville in 1977, yet I heard it in the summer of 1979 in the midst of upheaval and the hyper-self-consciousness that affect us when we’re young. I had returned from a year at Trinity College, Dublin full of hope and plans, which fell apart within two weeks of my arrival home. What may be common in a young man’s life felt epic in my own. First came the explosion at home, the house and family no longer able to contain the combustion between my Dad and me, an explosion fueled by fights over beards, church, politics, independence and too many angry words. And the girl I thought I loved and pined for from across the sea – what a romantic I was – assured me that she loved me too, but once back home, there was this other guy that she loved a little more and on a sunny May day, I watched her slip her arm in his and walk away.   

Well what was that you said when you had a tear
Rolling down your cheek the other night
I couldn’t catch it all there’s something going wrong
I hope you got it straightened out alright

I wound up crashing on a friend’s couch in Worcester, Mass, working two jobs as a janitor  – my first university job, cleaning the gym and library at Clark University. I’d start work at 7 p.m. cleaning a car dealership, take off for two hours, usually downing beers in Moynihan’s, then head over to Clark where I worked from 11 till 8. I’d spend my days in a sweaty sleep or roaming Worcester, which seemed incredibly desolate in those days. What a mess though I was moving too fast to fully notice, like holding on tight to a rocking and careening subway car barreling through the dark. My destination remained my senior year, though I had no idea how I’d pay for it or how I’d get through it.  

Into that mix, I heard “Going Down to Laurel.” Not sure how I first heard Steve Forbert, think I read about him first, then bought Alive on Arrival at a used record store. What buoyancy. No moaning or self-pitying there, just a guy happy to be in New York City, signing tunes about playing Grand Central Station, the foods he’d eat, the girls he loved and the fun he had. I fell hard for “Going Down to Laurel”, right from the cloudburst harmonica that broke open to the song and the voice that said, “Hey, you got check this out.”

Well everybody here, seems to like to laugh
Look at Johnny jivin’ across the floor
He can play the fool and make a few mistakes
But all the same he’ll never be a bore

Some lines were silly (“I’m glad to be so young talkin’ with my tongue”), yet who could resist the enthusiasm. It was a feeling I understood. Barred from my home,  I remember standing on the ramp from Northern State Parkway to the Cross Island, not even $100 in my pocket, knapsack on my back holding everything I owned at a time when it seemed vitally  important that my possessions included my Whitman and “Howl” and laughing, cause it was all so ridiculous, yet so freeing. What a sight I must’ve made to those cars whizzing past and how absurdly lucky I felt. Forbert knew the feeling:

Glad to be so careless in my way
Glad to take a chance and play against the odds
Glad to be so crazy in my day

The summer of 1979, I heard “Going Down to Laurel” one way. When he sang, “love’s a funny state of mind,” I understood the helplessness of love. Helpless in the way I felt; helpless in the way that I could not change the heart of the girl I loved. I fed off the energy of Forbert’s performance, the acceptance of the way things are and the way he relished his experiences.

Everything’s so loud and everything’s so fast
I hear your brother married once again
Yeah, the best of luck and all and try to have some fun
They tell me this great life can always end

As my world turned, so the song turned in my head. I managed to find my way back to school – borrowing, scrimping, and mooching to pay the freight – and slowly the girl I once loved and lost started coming back. I was the ridiculous choice – the self-fashioned poet bordering on losing control who thought it a point of honor to never go for a single job interview and my rival off in dental school, his clean cut looks and parlor manners perfect for meeting parents and setting up a good life. Yet the song proved true:

Little girl I’m goin’ to see
She is a fool for lovin’ me
But she’s in love
And love’s a funny state of mind

My girl’s common sense couldn’t save her; her friends couldn’t persuade her. Love’s a funny state of mind that won’t be denied. Come February, I enticed the girl to flee with me, on a whim hitching to New Orleans for a week away from Worcester’s winter, camping out on the shores of the Mississippi in Audubon Park, walking the streets of the French Quarter, spinning dreams, full of belief in the impossible. On our way back North, we travelled Route 59 through Mississippi and passed Laurel, the town that gave the song its title. By then, “Going Down to Laurel,” had become of joyous anthem of triumph. Love was undeniable. I had the girl of my dreams wrapped in my arms and all seemed blissful no matter how the whole world spun. “She’s in love and love’s a funny state of mind.”



Written and performed by Steve Earle. You can find a great live version from an Austin City Limits tribute show to Townes Van Zandt here. And a live version from the Bluebird Café with some nifty slide guitar work here. You can find the lyrics here. You can buy the original album version from iTunes here and a live version here done as a medley with Van Zandt’s “Rex’s Blues.”

Steve Earle headed out with guitar slung on his shoulder, a head full of ideas, a mug full of attitude, a longing heart and appetites big as Texas. Fates and circumstance led him to Townes Van Zandt who became mentor, friend and shaman feeding those appetites with everything from how to pick a guitar, turn a lyric and, so the story goes, make sure he used clean needles when shooting heroin. When Towns Van Zandt passed away on New Year’s Day 1997, Earle kept following, finding his friend wherever he turned until he finally sat down in Galway, Ireland two months later and wrote Fort Worth Blues as a tribute to his departed friend.

Why Fort Worth? Van Zandt came from Fort Worth, born into a well-known Texas family and in a life of wondering, that was the closest thing he had to a home. The song opens hovering over Fort Worth on the night that Van Zandt died, the City swathed in neon lights:

But they’d shut down all the honky-tonks tonight
And say a prayer or two
If they only knew

The sad irony comes from knowing that the honky-tonks did not close, not because they had not heard the word of the songwriter’s death, but because they did not appreciate the songwriter. Think of Auden’s memorial for Yeats when life went on not noticing the death of the poet or the New Testament lines, “A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.” They loved Van Zandt in Europe, but his hometown was another matter.

Van Zandt left Fort Worth, seeking a place where life made sense. Earle puts his friend’s travels in some perspective:

You used to say the highway was your home
But we both know that ain’t true
It’s just the only place a man can go
When he don’t know where he’s travelin’ to

No other place offered the home Van Zandt sought:

But Colorado’s always clean and healin’
And Tennessee in Spring is green and cool
It never really was your kind of town
But you went around with the Ft. Worth Blues

Here the song morphs, because it is not only Van Zandt who sought some peace, but Earle himself, so he sings not only of Van Zandt, but also his own journey. In fact, Earle wrote this song while traveling and touring in the months after his friends death. The song turns back on Earle when he sings:

Somewhere up beyond the great divide
Where the sky is wide and the clouds are few
A man can see his way clear to the light
Just hold on tight
That’s all you gotta do

Is that advice or a wish? Earle speaks at least as much to himself as he does his friend. Earle had been travelling after Van Zandt’s death, and one can imagine that he was struggling with his grief and to make sense of Van Zandt’s life. He came into Galway and stopped for a break. There’s a pub and performing space, the Roisin Dubh, where he would have found a picture of Towns Van Zandt hanging over the bar with an inscription “Townes Van Zandt Texan Singer Songwriter and Gentleman.” Maybe that’s why he writes:

There’s a full moon over Galway Bay tonight
Silver light over green and blue
And every place I travel through, I find
Some kinda sign that you’ve been through

More than a sign in the bar, more then footprints, it’s the echoes of his friend and the words he wrote, a sense that Van Zandt’s spirit has infused the world that Earle inhabits. The song ends with thoughts of foreign cities and the shared journey of the two men. (Think of Auden writing on the passing of Yeats: “The words of a dead man /

Are modified in the guts of the living.”) Earle will go on singing his friend’s song which has become his song:

But Amsterdam was always good for grieving
And London never fails to leave me blue
Paris never was my kinda town
So I walked around with the Ft. Worth Blues

Earle’s spent many years travelling with Van Zandt. In fact, he tells the story of an early tour with a last show in Colorado and Van Zandt was too drunk to go on stage. Figuring no one would know the difference, the young Steve Earle went on as Towns Van Zandt, played all of Van Zandt’s songs, grabbed the money and they high-tailed it back to Texas. In a bit a bravado, Earle once declared Van Zandt, “the best songwriter in the whole world and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.” No word if he ever made it up on that table.

Writing a tribute song was not enough homage for Steve Earle to pay to Towns Van Zandt. He also named his son, Justin Towns Earle, after his friend and in 2009, recorded an album of Van Zandt songs entitled, Townes. That album won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album.  You can learn more about Steve Earle at his website and learn more about Towns Van Zandt at this website run by his ex-wife and this website run by fans.


Written by Bob Dylan, though this note concerns Neil Young’s live performance from his 1991 tour, a performance you can see here.

On a frigid night in January 1991, I piled into Madison Square Garden to see and hear Neil Young. After the intermission following the opening act (Sonic Youth), darkness enveloped the crowd. We heard the sounds of machinery and explosions, alarms rang out. We were surrounded by the sounds of war – a reminder that while we sat in that arena a war raged across the world in Kuwait and Iraq.  Out of the cacophony came the unmistakable sound of Neil Young’s guitar – thick, muddy, purposeful – playing the simple melody to “Blowing it the Wind.” On the stage, roadies dressed in leftover Star War-movie robes, raised an oversized microphone in an echo of the flag rising over Iwo Jima. The microphone stand wore a huge yellow ribbon.

As if rising from the guitar chords, Neil Young’s voice filled the arena – plaintive and yearning:

How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
Yes, ’n’ how many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
Yes, ’n’ how many times must the cannonballs fly
Before they’re forever banned?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

For weeks, I had felt so alone in my own country, alienated as my friends and neighbors watched the aerial bombing in the Middle East as if a video game on our TVs. We watched nightly footage of aerial assaults with green-tinted videos tagged with captions identifying what just vanished from the screen. News anchors announced in hushed tones the success of another bombing. The sky lit up with streaks of light and we were told those were Iraqi missiles shot down by U.S. Scud missiles. It all seemed so frightening and overwhelming, yet no one cold dare ask a question. No one could ask “why?” No one could ask if everything we saw and heard was true.

And then came Neil Young, fuzzy guitar and wavering voice bringing a song that had all but stagnated into a museum piece back to life, a song that did nothing but ask questions, a song that made it possible to challenge, to dare. Standing in the darkness, he made it possible to wonder why and that song provided the common text around which 20,000 people could unite and know we were not alone. As the crowd cheered, we did so in appreciation of what the artist had just done for us. We stood in a collective sign of relief and empowerment, no longer alone, but connected in an experience that only certain art can provide.


My Old Man

Written and performed by Steve Goodman. You can listen to it here. You can buy it from iTunes here and a live version here.   

My Dad would’ve turned 83 today, so you won’t blame me if I gave Steve Goodman’s ode to his father’s passing a spin. Singing in a rueful voice, the whisper of strings in the background, Goodman’s meditation on his Dad teeters on the maudlin. He saves the song with the honesty of his portrait and the truth he finds.

As if tiptoeing up to his subject, Goodman opens the song with his voice tentative, trying to capture not the idea of the man, but the man himself:

With his corny jokes and his cheap cigars
He could look you in the eye and sell you a car.
That’s not an easy thing to do,
But no one ever knew a more charming creature
On this earth than my old man.

It’s hard to write about family, too many urges to pull punches or cut deep enough to make up for the hurts that only family can deliver, too many urges to save our subjects from themselves, to make them better than they were. Yet Goodman trusts his own eyes and respects his father for who he was, not who he should have been. You have to believe that car salesman Dad embarrassed a young, sensitive Steve Goodman, yet here is the more mature man, recognizing what a talent it took to sell those cars that put food on the table.

Goodman trusts the facts of his father’s life and the way his father’s life unfolded against a backdrop of history. Like so many children of veterans, he may not have known the heroics, tedium or terrors his father suffered in the war; it is just enough to know the facts:

And after they dropped the bomb
He came home and married mom
And not long after that
He was my old man

Throughout the song, Goodman grows closer to the man, until in the last verse he seems his father in all his human frailty:

And I can almost see his face
He was always trying to watch his weight
And his heart only made it to fifty-eight.

We so often lock our fathers into caricatures of themselves that we fail to see the man standing right there before us. Not the one bellowing or lecturing, but the man standing in his boxers on a scale wondering why he can’t lose any weight.

Yet it’s the penultimate verse where Goodman comes to understand both the nature of the relationship with his father and the meaning of his death:

And oh the fights we had
When my brother and I got him mad;
He’d get all boiled up and he’d start to shout
And I knew what was coming so I tuned him out.
And now the old man’s gone, and I’d give all I own
To hear what he said when I wasn’t listening
To my old man

Goodman looks back and learns the hard lesson: that the worse thing he ever did was to stop listening. A relationship is an ongoing dialogue and it falls apart when the talking stops. What more can we ask than to have someone who cares enough to listen, who engages enough to tell us what they need to say, be it the facts of the day or the moments of heartbreak and joy. In a world where the number of years and people make our lives increasingly insignificant, what more could we ask than to have someone whose engagement proves that we do matter.

I hear Goodman’s plaintive voice and think of my own father and his retreats to silence. He cared so much about being the Dad, about the role he had to play in drawing lines and trying to mold his children the way he so deeply believed that they need to be. And when the chaos of the world and our burgeoning lives did not conform, he felt he had no choice but to cross his arms and stand mute. In my heady adolescence and early twenties, that silence hurt and angered and sometimes grew to the point where I didn’t notice as the rest of my life gave me more than I could handle. Years later, I realized the cost we both paid with his silence and think of how my father sacrificed so much joy – the ongoing dialogue of that father-son relationship – to play the role of Dad that he felt thrust upon him. We were fortunate to take up that dialogue when we both aged and softened; we grew close and relished that on-going dialogue, though we could never fill in the hole left from the years of fierce silence.

At the end of the verse, Goodman comes to understand the fullness of the loss in his father’s passing for the dialogue ends, “I’d give all I own/To hear what he said when I wasn’t listening.” If a relationship is an on-going dialogue, then death ends the dialogue, it silences voices. We’re left to replay lines, to rethink what we heard and wish for what we could not ask or say.

So the song ends, with Goodman seeing his father, aging, struggling with his weight and feels all the silence of the universe in what his father can no longer say and what he can no longer hear. No wonder he sings:

For the first time since he died
Late last night, I cried.
I wondered when I was gonna do that
For my old man

If we could re-engage, just for a day, oh the things I would say and the things I’d hope to hear. Happy birthday would be a good place to start.


Jackson Square

Written and performed by Mason Jennings. You can listen to the studio version here and check out YouTube for countless live versions. You can buy the song from iTunes here and the album Boneclouds here.

An odd, moving song with music breezy as a day at the beach and a story sad enough to make you stop and cry. The strumming guitar and twinkling piano float like a Jack Johnson song, yet the lyrics tell a song of heartbreak and sorrow. It opens with our narrator sitting with a loaded gun at a little graveyard, seven police cars headed his way.   He makes one plea:

Just because you say it doesn’t make it true
You can say that I’m guilty man I just don’t care
You can burn my body black
Just don’t make me go back to Jackson Square

Guilty of what? And what happened at Jackson Square? Like any good storyteller, he has us hooked. And what unfurls is a story of love gained and loved lost.

We’re cast back to New Orleans and young love:

I met you on Decatur Street
With your little bare feet and your violin
I was walking by with my guitar in my hand
You smiled at me and I jumped right in

The telling is so easy and deft, her bare feet and the matching of guitar and violin. It borders on the trite – yes, they make good music together – yet the openness of the music and singing lets us believe, lets us smile. He doesn’t merely fall for his musical nymph, he jumps right in, an echo of the an exuberant line on another song from the same album, “If You Ain’t Got Love.” Jennings quickly captures the way that the intense relationship becomes all-encompassing:

Before I knew it you were all I knew
Every moment together was an answered prayer

The music and lines of love seem so happy, yet we now form the opening lines that a darkness would come. So we hear:

Then one day everything changed
Your eyes got strange, you didn’t seem yourself
You’d go to tell a story and you’d start out fine
Halfway through it you’d be somewhere else

The imagery is both common – the troubled eyes – and insightful, as she loses the ability to tell her story, to make sense of the world. Jennings uses dreams to make sense of what is happening:

And I started having the strangest dream
I held a string and looked up in the air
And you were glowing with the strangest light
Drifting out of sight over Jackson Square

His love drifts away and there’s nothing he can do, nothing he can grasp. Where once she was the barefoot singer in the square, now she’s sailing overhead. We have some images of a troubled relationship (she’s crying behind the bathroom door), but soon we learn more about the object of his love:

She says, she hears spirits all around the room
And they’re telling her things that make her feel scared
I have no idea what to do
Before we’re in over our heads in Jackson Square

The songwriter is not a clinician, more a correspondent for the heart, telling of desire and loss, tracing the path to desolation and helplessness. He’s prepared us for the tragedy that will come:

I woke up with a weight on my chest
People were screaming on the street below
I reached for you, I was alone in the bed
Wind was blowing through an open window

As he did earlier in the song, Jennings turns to dream-like imagery to make sense of the narrator’s experiences:

Suddenly I was very old
In a little boat, absolutely nowhere
Staring at the side of the universe
And your tiny body down on Jackson Square

We need to finish the arc kicked off by the imagery from the start of the song.

Now don’t tell me that there ain’t no end
There damn well is and it waits in the wings
I see you kneeling there at center stage
In your tiny cage made of angel wings

While I’m here every night
Loading my gun and trying not to go there
Anyone who says that life is clear
Has never seen a mirror or been to Jackson Square

We are back at the gravesite but now we understand who lies there and perhaps why the narrator sits with loaded gun. And we understand why he’d rather burn to black then head back to Jackson Square.

In the end, the music that opened so light and breezy falls away. It could only carry us so far. Jennings sings the last verses virtually a cappella punctuated with lone discordant piano notes. When he finishes with the some “yeah, yeahs” and the full band, the final words music becomes almost an incantation to sail away from Jackson Square.


Waiting on a Friend

Performed by the Rolling Stones. Written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. You can hear the studio version and see time-period video here. You can buy the song from iTunes here and buy the album Tattoo You here.

What a perfect, hip-swaying, Reggae mellow ode to friendship.  No snarling here, no sex or drugs, just a Caribbean breeze of a summer song with Mick singing about the virtues of a friendship.  Bill Wyman’s soulful bass and Charlie Watt’s subtle drumming set the foundation, but the real musical touches come from the guests: Nicky Hopkins lightly tripping on the piano and Sonny Rollins adding the sax solos that shimmy and shine in perfect keeping with the song’s laid back groove. The sax solos and Mick’s soft “do-do-dos” end the song as if the friends of the title have caught up and they’re lounging with their feet up watching some island sunset. 

The warmth and openness of the song separate it from much of the Stones catalogue:

Don’t need a whore,
I don’t need no booze,
Don’t need a virgin priest,
But I need someone I can cry to,
I need someone to protect

If Mick didn’t sing with such ease and comfort you’d almost think the song a joke, but Jagger makes you believe his heart is in this one. Maybe he’s all grown up as the final lines suggests:

Making love and breaking hearts,
It is a game for youth,
But I’m not waiting on a lady,
I’m just waiting on a friend.

The Stones first began recording this song during the Goats Head Sup sessions in Jamaica (surprise) in 1973 and revived it during the 1981 sessions for the Tattoo You album.  With a rhythm so irresistible, there’s no wonder the song kept coming back. Jagger says he only had to add some lyrics to pull it all together. While they did add Sonny Rollins’ sax solos in the latter sessions, the band kept Mick Taylor’s guitar work from the earlier recordings.  Jagger commented on the song in the liner notes to a later compilation album, “We all liked it at the time but it didn’t have any lyrics, so there we were… The lyric I added is very gentle and loving, about friendships in the band.”

The Video for “Waiting on a Friend”

Always loved this video both for the New York setting and the sheer fun of seeing the Stones goofing around. It opens with Mick hanging on the front steps of a building on St. Mark’s Place (same building that Led Zeppelin used on the cover of Physical Graffiti) with several Rastas, one of whom is Peter Tosh. (Jagger and Tosh recorded a single, “(You Got to) Walk and Don’t Look Back.”) Mick is resplendent as only he could be in his white pants, madras shirt and floppy hat, keeping the beat by tapping his fingers on the door way and maintaining a lookout for his friend. And who should amble by? None other than a disheveled Keith Richards, smoking a cigarette, scarf draped around his neck. Mick watches some girls pass when Keith comes up and greets him with a hug and you want to believe that through it all these two really are friends, that they are the same two who first hit it off in a fabled encounter on a train station platform when Mick saw this guy hauling around a stack of blues albums. Keith meet Mick and so it goes.

After hanging on the steps for a few minutes, the two friends amble down the street that feels like early 1980’s New York pre-East Village gentrification, dirty, full of character. They duck into St. Mark’s Bar and Grill, a long gone neighborhood watering hole. And whom do they see sitting on the bar stools, but the rest of the Stones; cue hugs all around. Ronny Woods and Keith Richards look like twin fixtures who could live in the place to avoid the sunlight. The video reminds us how long these guys had been together and that was only 1981. They’re a motley crew, sharing beers, Mick shaking and mouthing (lipping?) the words of the song till they make their way to the back of the bar where, lo and behold, instruments await, and they finish out the song.  What great fun.

Michael Lindsay-Hogg directed the video (he also directed the 1968 film, The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus) and it saw lots of play on MTV.


There’s a Wall in Washington

Written and Performed by Iris Dement. You can listen to the studio version here. You can buy the song from iTunes here and the album, The Way I Should, here.  

Introduced by insistent bongos and a sound bed of piano and guitar, Iris Dement steps the microphone and in a clear, strong voice wails, “There’s a wall in Washington.” Her voice rasps with earnestness, the lyrics as straightforward as a punch.

Like the monument itself, the song unfolds unadorned by needless details or melodrama.

There’s a wall in Washington
And it’s made of cold black granite
They say 60,000 names are etched there in it

She sings of three visitors – a father, a mother and a son – each making a pilgrimage to this wall. Dement does not overdramatize the moments as each reaches for a name:

A father, he traveled from far away
To walk the path ’til he finds that name
He reaches his hand up and traces each letter
The tears they fall as his memories gather
For the boy who filled his heart with pride
Is now but a name that’s been etched
In the side of this wall in Washington

Think of Lincoln’s words about an earlier war when he spoke at the Gettysburg burial ground:

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate — we cannot consecrate — we cannot hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.

For many years, I’ve travelled to Washington, coming to visit, to do business, to protest and to celebrate, and each time I’ve made my own pilgrimage to this wall. I have no relatives honored there, no best friends, but the black stone and those names calls anyway. The wall belongs to each of us, it mutely challenges each of us in a deeply personal way that transcends mere facts and arguments.

I think of the dead as if older brothers. I think of the unlived histories that shadow our world, the live side by side the lives that continued. The uncrushed side of the bed when a wife rolled over for a hug she could not get. The father not hovering over his son, gripping a plastic baseball bat to show the boy how to swing. The man not tightening the pedals on his daughter’s new bike. The empty couch where a man might have slumped after another lousy day at work. The father not there to ground the son who took the car and came home way too late. The truck that did not get driven to make a delivery or the spreadsheet not built to track an inventory or a stock not analyzed or a case not argued in a court with one less lawyer.  The beer not drunk when the Giants finally won a Super Bowl after all those years of mediocrity.  The man not sitting in the bleachers at the high school graduation and beaming even as he shook his head when he realizes his son wore those sneakers anyway. The vote not made and the question not asked at a parent-teacher meeting and the song not sung in praise of God on a Sunday morning. The toast not made at a Thanksgiving dinner table and the new boyfriend not quizzed. The moment when the son had to figure out how to fix a thermostat as no one was there to show him how. The man not leaping to his feet when his wife stood up to accept her award as teacher of the year and the arms not there to hug her after the lump in the breast turned out to be nothing.  The moment when the bride walks the aisle by herself without a father gripping her hand and lifting her veil to kiss her. The phone not answered when the son calls about a new job or a job lost or the news that a baby would soon join them. The world that spun this way and not that way.

I think of those who did not go by luck, reason or manipulation. I think of those who went and came back, each marked, though no two marked the same. I’ve listened to the stories of men who did go, men met on the job, in bars, on the road, men who could not shut up or who stuttered till they could get out the words or said nothing, just stonily stared in response to a question or laughed it off with assurances that it was all long ago. I’ve seen the documentaries and read the news reports filled with facts and details and read the truth in the works of Michael Herr, Tim O’Brien, Robert Stone, Larry Heinemann, Gustav Hasford and Bobbie Ann Mason.

All of that helps explain why there’s that wall and none of it explains enough. All of that explains why I bow before that wall and yet it doesn’t begin to explain the tears no matter how sloppy and sentimental I may be. All those possibilities and now nothing.

Dement follows the young boy in the song as he finds his father’s name and reaches to touch it, the physical manifestation of a lifetime of memories and shadows. And then she sings:

“Who is to blame for this wall in Washington
That’s made of cold black granite?
Why is my father’s name etched here in it
In this wall in Washington?”

The artist does not have to provide answers; the questions are enough. Think of an earlier song, when the singer asked, “how many times must the cannonballs fly/Before they’re forever banned?” The questions wait for our answers.

Dement does not name the wall for good reason. The song touches on a sad reality, that she sings not of the Viet Name war, but all the wars before and all the wars past that leave behind fathers, mothers and orphans ask why. History is less a lesson we need to learn and more a nightmare we can’t escape.

Today we fight two wars. Good wars we are told; necessary wars the President calls them. I am still the brother, but a parent now too, old enough to think of my eldest boys – age 20 and 17 – and their friends and peers. I know of the boys and girls signing up out of patriotism or obligation or a way out or because they have nothing better to do. And I listen to all the men and women (“You that hide behind walls/You that hide behind desks”) with their impassioned arguments as to why more young people must die. They die for the nation. They die to save lives. They die for freedom. They die for oil. They die for the way of life. They die for us. And who are we to ask them to die? Who are we to let them die?


It’s My Life

Performed by the Animals. Written by Roger Atkins and Carl D’Errico. You can listen to the studio version here and see a performance from the TV Show Hullabaloo here (including live vocals and canned music and a nearly surreal set that included women’s heads poking through a wall like mounted animals.) You can buy the song from iTunes here.

From the opening heavy strums of Chas Chandler on the bass followed by Hilton Valentines’ dirty guitar riffs, this song is trouble, but what makes it are the swaggering vocals laid down by Eric Burdon. What misunderstood teenager (and aren’t all teenager misunderstood) wouldn’t relate to the anger and bravado in Burdon’s voice?

Written in the Brill building for the Animals, the songs fits nicely with the working class stance taken buy the Animals, but played well in the States too for any teenager feeling oppressed, misunderstood and left behind. First released in 1965 as part of the British invasion, the Animals may have been the nastiest of the bunch, nothing pretty about them as they churned out in-your-face blues laden hits.

I came late to the party, discovering them in the mid 70’s after buying a used record (still have it with the $1 tag still on it to this day) in a dingy store outside Huntington Village. The defiant voice, the fist-pounding beat, gave voice to much of what I felt. No, it wasn’t a class warfare thing; I could never claim those working class roots, it was the sense of standing up, of staking a claim for my life my way. I remember thinking how I could just play that song to explain to my folks and teachers how I really felt.  And isn’t that what the best songs do, give voice to what we cannot fully articulate?

The whole performance, but particularly Burdon’s biting vocals made it all possible. It was teenage rebellion sharpened to its essence:

It’s my life and I’ll do what I want
Don’t push me
It’s my mind and I’ll think what I want
It’s my life
It’s my life and I’ll do what I want
And I can do what I want
It’s my mind and I’ll think what I want
You can’t tell me
It’s my life and I’ll do what I want

Many have covered the song, including David Johansen and Bruce Springsteen. You can catch the Boss’s version – slower, more meditative, more tied to the father-son pathos, in this bootleg video.

 I’ve always thought that the Animals had the talent and musical muscle to make it as big as some of their better selling contemporaries like the Stones. They never lasted, Burden going his separate, hippy-dippy ways (singing “Sky Pilot” and “Spill the Wine”) and Chas Chandler managing and producing Jimi Hendrix. I suppose it’s a chicken or egg question: did they not persist because they could not make it big or did they not make it big because they did not persist? More and more I think persistence is the key. The Stones were bound to succeed if for no other reason than they kept working at it.

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