Sing a Sad Song

A friend recently asked me to name some of my favorite bands, so I listed a few. He stopped me when I mentioned Magnolia Electric Company, saying he’d never heard of them and was curious what they sounded like. I said something about how Jason Molina fills his songs with moons and ghosts and darkness and depression, at which point my friend responded, “Why do you like the sad stuff so much?”

It wasn’t that hard to give a shorthand answer. I believe in using music for catharsis, even if it’s not always a conscious decision. I might not know exactly what I’m working out, but I know that something essential and positive is going on inside. It’s been said that one of the best ways to cure the blues is to listen to the blues, and there’s no reason that can’t extend to country, indie rock, or just about anything in between.

That said, for all my enjoyment of the Cars, Queen, or the Scissor Sisters, I suppose I have to cop to a clear bias towards what High Fidelity labeled “sad bastard music”. My mixes usually start off on a pretty rocking foot — maybe a little Los Lobos, Prince, or Drive-by Truckers to clear the starting gates in a hurry — but it’s not long before I’m in territory ruled by moody singer-songwriters or bands looking at their shoes through distorted guitar haze. Like a young injured bird trying to get off the ground and back to its nest, nature finally takes over and lets the predators — those musical wolves and ghosts of Molina’s songs, for example — have their way. Dante would have looked at the downward spiral of my mixes and said, “Whoa, lighten up a little, dude.”

But it did get me to thinking about the sad music I listen to, and how it differs from what I listened to when I was much younger. t seems like not so long ago that I was standing behind a record store counter slagging Warren Zevon’s Mutineer record while a middle-aged regular argued that it was one of the best things Zevon had ever done. Looking back, I think the truth lies somewhere in between, but there’s no denying that songs like “Indifference of Heaven” or “Mutineer” resonate with me now in ways they didn’t before. As for the mortality-informed material that Zevon was recording as he neared death, songs like “Keep Me in Your Heart” (“Sometimes when you’re doing simple things around the house / Maybe you’ll think of me and smile / You know I’m tied to you like the buttons on your blouse / Keep me in your heart for a while”) have a devastating effect on me.

In fact, “devastating” is a word I use a lot to describe the songs that hit me emotionally. When I was younger, much of the sad music I listened to simply tapped raw emotional veins along the lines of “my crush doesn’t know I like her,” “my girlfriend doesn’t understand me,” and “my girlfriend ran off with a DJ who won’t shut up about how much he loves the Eagles.”

Now, though, I have the worry and joy of kids, the life-altering impacts of serious multi-year relationships that coincided with critical juncture points in my life, and the knowledge that I probably have less life ahead of me than behind me. I also have those early teen- and 20-something years to look back on with regret instead of confusion, as it’s since dawned on me that I was doing my fair share of emotional wreckage while I was better-dealing, waffling, or in general being an unaware jerk. Hello Drive-by Truckers’ “Zip City”, which may capture the innate callousness of the teenage boy (“Maybe you’re just a destination, a place for me to go / A way to keep from having to deal with my seventeen-year-old mind all alone”) better than anything I’ve ever heard.

I’m not saying that one set of songs or one experience is objectively better than the other, but I do think that you have to let your music grow with you, and the search to find songs that resonate often has you not only trying new artists and songs, but also circling back around. When I got stopped for speeding at the tender age of 18, belting out “Thunder Road” after my crush let me know she was going with the competition, I didn’t know jack about lyrics like “So you’re scared and you’re thinking / That maybe we ain’t that young anymore.” I do now. And if I could grow to appreciate a Springsteen lyric like “I act like I don’t remember / And Mary acts like she don’t care” (“The River”), I could also get blindsided by Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat”. You hope you never find yourself in a situation where you have to say “Your enemy is sleeping… thanks / For the trouble you took from her eyes / I thought it was there for good so I never tried”.

And while I’m not sitting in the dark with a bottle of whiskey and Townes Van Zandt’s “Waiting Around to Die” or “Nothing” on repeat, it’s not hard to sympathize with their one-foot-in-the-grave weariness.

All of those previous examples were written by young men with old souls, as is so often the way. I think there’s something to be said for the enthusiasm of youth merging with a well-developed, almost uncanny feel for regret. You can’t always count on those old souls to stay in tune with you. As a lot of songwriters get older, their richness of detail seems to fade. I don’t think it’s because they have any less command of language. I think that, as you get older, you develop a sense of “all this has come before,” much like a wizened old time traveler or immortal in a science fiction movie.

Back when I was bar-tending, it didn’t take me long to realize that while the faces changed from semester to semester, the stories really didn’t. The details of who and where didn’t seem to matter as much as the overall template. I can certainly feel it in my own writing. Whereas I once would have tried to jam every very important and crucial detail into every sentence (because no one’s ever experienced this before!), I like to think that my efforts now are tighter and more restrained, and that the prose is less purple (although friends who have read my poems and short stories might disagree). I think it’s the same way with songwriters.

Besides, it’s not like it’s all sad. Take the Cure’s “Fascination Street”. For me, the song’s heart is the line “let’s move to the beat like we know that it’s over.” Looking back, I can see the fatalism and resignation that fuel that line and the entire song. But I can also see myself in 1989, in a relationship where the two of us had grown into two totally different people. We sensed it was over, but in the arguments and the drunken stabs at wringing life and energy out of our final days was an urgent rhythm and struggle against the inevitable. It might have been futile, and we might have known how it would end, but you could argue that it was better than shuffling into middle age, wrapped in a comforting blanket of sad songs. Like, ahem, some people.