Friday, February 1, 2013

Favorite Song Friday: too late to turn back now

The mind goes strange places as you're drifting off to sleep. I was thinking of the song I was going to write about this Favorite Song Friday when one of the following songs suddenly popped into my head, the first time I've thought of it in quite a while. It led to one of the others which led to the final, the first time I'd thought about the connection between the three, songs I love by three different artists, two of whom I like and one I really don't. And now it's all this.

I'd never heard of David Ackles until a few years ago, when his 1972 album, American Gothic—produced by Bernie Taupin—got a rave write-up in the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. Elvis Costello and Elton John gushed to each other on Spectacle, the EC talk show, about how great Ackles was. And it turns out Phil Collins was a huge fan, too, so what more recommendation did I possibly need?

I was so excited when I finally scored the album. And then it turns out he's not for me. He's very good, I guess, but when I later learned he'd gone into musical theatre after his recording career stalled, it made sense: that's what his stuff sounds like, like a singer-songwriter doing musical theatre. And since that's maybe my least favorite genre, it wasn't likely we were ever going to connect the way I'd hoped.

With one exception. "Waiting for the Moving Van" knocked me out the first time I heard it and has continued to ever since. It's still got that show tune vibe but without the big production, the lyrics are the focus... and, my God, the lyrics.
The front door has that noisy hinge I never did repair.
You used to hear it late at night and meet me on the stair.
Well, I work the daylight, now; I'm always home by six.
Now, there's lots of time and nothing left to fix,
Except the things I am trying not to think of while I can,
Waiting for the moving van to come.

The false bravado at the end, when he claims he's got so much to plan and do to get ready for his new life, when it's clear to everyone except him—and probably even him himself, deep down—that it's just a front, and that he's got nowhere to go and nothing to do and no one to see, is just heartbreaking. Because who hasn't been there? Even those of us lucky enough to have never really been there have been close enough for jazz.

The death throes—or, in the case of "Waiting for the Moving Van," the wake, I guess, maybe the sitting shivah—of a relationship is usually sad, maybe even tragic. But that doesn't begin to touch the horror of Okkervil River's "Savannah Smiles."

I like Okkervil River. I both love and hate "Savannah Smiles." Love it because, well, it's amazing. Hate it because I find it hard not to cry when I hear it—and I wish I were exaggerating. It deals with a father stumbling upon the diary of his daughter, home for a visit, and discovering to his bewilderment, shock and horror, that she's become an adult movie star.
Photos on the wall—she's my baby, she's my baby doll
Is she someone I don't know at all? Is she someone I betrayed?
It's a grey day in the fall and the radio's singing down the hall
And I rise to turn it off 'cause all I'm seeing is her face age eight 

My God, the ticking of the clock in the background and the melody mirrored on a child's toy xylophone as he desperately tries to figure out what he did or didn't do that could have possibly led her down this path is just...I can't even. I can't even.

And we're ending with the song that kicked the whole train of thought off, since it's positively cheery by comparison. Another relationship is dying or dead but this time the singer's raging against the dying of the light...or, more accurately, crooning warbly his resistance with the kind of nimble wordplay I normally dislike but which here seems wonderfully elegant and appropriate.
I haven't seen you in ages but it's not as bleak as it seems
We still dance on whirling stages in my Busby Berkeley dreams

The tears have stained all the pages of my True Romance magazines
We still dance in my outrageously beautiful Busby Berkeley dreams
Sure, he's lying to himself even more bluntly than the singer of "Waiting for the Moving Van" but he's doing it so darn defiantly and so gosh darn romantically. If a relationship has to die a painful death, best to paper it over with a fancy façade, I think. Illusion is what keeps us going, and sweet is better than bitter. 

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