Wednesday, February 3, 2010

No Other or The Story of the Story of Departure

Late one night this week, I was listening to this song “Boats” by this band Spring and thinking about departure, because, well, the song is about departure.  I was thinking about departure and about the feeling of a rainy night in April; one of those first mild nights, when you realize that the leaves are back because you can hear the rain pat from one leaf to the next as it falls to the ground.  The sure-fire passion and burning anguish of those cold, thin, winter nights are gone and all that is left is the cool mild air and the feeling that it is all coming back again – the insects, the long nights, the birdcalls, the dirt and scrapes on your knees, that comfort of pushing up your sleeves with a perspiring bottle of beer in your other hand.

When I think of all of this, I see the streets of the neighborhood I grew up in – the sand lined streets, with old colonial and Cape Cod homes butting up against oddly placed late 80’s architecture.  Because what are our childhood homes but the symbol of departure, the image that we use to draw the word and give it meaning to us.  Our childhood homes – not only being places of comfort and inestimable light, warmth and longing – are those places where we can draw forth the life into phrases like, “That’s why I’m this way,” or “That’s what I’m going to do,” or “That’s what I was going to do.”  It is from there we were bound to leave and to there we are destined to gaze when measuring what we don’t have, when measuring our levels of depravity, insomnia, imagination and longing.

"What the hell does this have to do with Gene Clark?  Where are you taking us Domino?"  Well this all has plenty to do with Gene Clark and his album No Other, which opens with one of my favorite songs, “Life’s Greatest Fool.” This is one of the funniest serious songs of all-time.  Now, I don’t reveal too much about myself personally on this blog, but this song in tone and lyric truly nails what I imagine my personality to be.  I’ve said that Gene Clark’s version of “Tears of Rage” is the sound of my soul to one unlucky listener a long time ago, which was actually ages ago (O, hyperbole!), but “Life’s Greatest Fool” taps the nail on the head.  It lopes along amiably with nice slide guitars, tinkling piano and mid-70’s backing singers.  Yet, underneath this lolling dog appearance, Gene Clark delivers some of his most poignant lyrics, lines like, “Do you believe deep in your soul, that too much loneliness makes you grow old?” or “Words can be empty, though filled with sound,” or  “Formed out of pleasure, chiseled by pain, never the highest, never the last one to gain” and “Children laugh and run away, while others look into the darkness of the day.” None of these lines is as pleasant as the galloping honky-tonk on coke rhythm and the last line may even sound like leftover 60’s sentimentality (images of children, etc.), but it’s the last images that strikes true with the rest of the rambling I put above.

This image of children looking into the darkness too reminds me – perhaps obviously – of the neighborhood where I grew up.  These lines suggest the sun setting over the harbor water while I’m standing on one of the slow rising streets up to my home.  But like I said earlier, that vantage point will always be departed from, it is only that image that allows a word like departure to even have meaning for me – for us – because I know what it is to move away from that point  into a perceived loneliness, into a darkness, which is just a departure, which is a change, which is a leaving of something behind.  Now, was Gene Clark trying to say any of this when he wrote the song? No, probably not.  But when he asks if you believe deep in your soul, that too much loneliness makes you grow cold, he sings it like he means it and that’s what makes my imagination move.  Was Gene going through hard times when he wrote this song? Maybe. The album is overproduced to a certain unintentional perfection and  it sounds and feels like a night on coke (credit Allmusic).  But those children looking into the darkness of the day are the ones growing old, they are the ones feeling loneliness at the word departure – at the images they carry with them of a girl on the beach by the reeds with three beer bottles dug into the sand, the kissing stalled at a stop sign, remembering to keep your foot on the break, of the runny nose end of a football game at twilight in late October.

This is an album about bottoming out so of course we’re going to be looking back from whatever apartment we’re in, from whatever art we’re trying to make, or from whatever love we’re trying to find meaning in and think about the departure.  “We all need a fix at a time like this, but doesn’t it feel good to stay alive,” Gene says in “Some Misunderstanding” amid more of that tinkling piano, throbbing round bass, and those damn 70’s backing vocals that make it all that much more dense (the drums on this album are pretty universally outstanding the whole way through). Elsewhere in the song he says that “maybe someone knows what fate is” and “maybe someone knows just why/All I know is its all connected/Maybe someone can explain time.”  Obviously these are the words of someone – a singer, a character – who has fallen off.  But they are also somewhat commonplace questions that we all ask when we’re looking for some kind of answer of identity.  The you of your childhood neighborhood is not the same you as now and maybe you feel bad about that, but maybe there is some kind of fate, maybe there is someone who can explain time, and maybe a fix can certainly help, but its probably better to just keep on going.  These are the things you think about when you think about departure, when you think of those old October evenings and the smell of fries and fried chicken from the neighborhood deli.

Even in the more upbeat country shuffle and pedal steel guitar of the next song, the “True One,” ol’ Gene realizes that “Changes come so quickly easily it can seem bizarre” and that “The longer you stay in one place, the harder it is to leave.”  Even though we lament our departure from whatever we thought we had or from whatever home we though there was, there is no chance we would have ever stayed.  We only have that place, we only have the word "departure" because we left.  When you walked those old streets and scuffed your feet on the pavement, you only had a vague outline of the word, but now you can use it and access its colors and shades because you’ve known it.  The changes are always going to come and you’ll always be left at the station or you’ll always leave someone at the station – because you just have to, otherwise what identity are you going to have for yourself?  What pain will you know? What words will you even be able to speak to tell someone you love them?  The longer you stay in one place, the harder it is to leave because there are more responsibilities to do the right thing and to be fair and merciful to those you know.  However, the truth is that the right thing to do is to help someone grow and often that means departing.

I’ll only go a little further in this exercise.  On the title track “No Other,” the main verse of the song says:

All alone you say 
That you don't want no other
So the lord is love and love is like no other
If the falling tide can turn and then recover
All alone we must  be part of one another

That verse sums the whole thing up very nicely.  We all carry some kind of belief that we are all alone, that we alone stay up scanning the nighttime sky and rooftops for some kind of satisfaction or peace – that calm that we so confusedly grasp for.  We don’t want anything else but what we want and we want someone else just as much as we want to be alone.  And at the end of the day we want that first word known to all men, so the lord is love and love is like no other because love is the love that loves to love the love that loves.  Yet, all alone, we must be part of one another, we must bow ourselves in the collective solitude of the universe and realize, as Joyce put it so eloquently in Ulysses, that “each imagines himself to be the first to enter, whereas he is neither first, nor only, nor alone in a series originating in and repeated to infinity.”

You may not enjoy Gene Clark’s sometimes nasally, but always yearning voice. You may not enjoy overproduced 70’s albums that have been relegated to a certain obscurity, although your corner coffee shop in Williamsburg does play it when you grab a cup on the way to work.  You may not enjoy a guy brow-beating you to death with meaning on his blog.  However, we are always in the process of departure and we can always remember those sensations of the rain on an April night.  Or, one winter afternoon, while you are running, you can see past the clumps of snow on the ground and see a street where the traffic has broken for a moment. The sun is high in the sky and its light spreads over the entire pavement and makes it appear completely gold for a minute – maybe not even gold, but some color you don’t have words for.  And even though you’ve been running and are exhausted, you see that clear piece of  shining road stretching as far as you can imagine, and even though you know the night will come with its cold and its snow, you feel like you could just run and run forever and never stop.  And maybe you can.  Neither Gene Clark or I is going to tell you otherwise.

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