Okay, this here might shock some of you. It might horrify others, or even disgust some. But I was just listening to a truly wonderful song, one I always just loved and haven’t heard in a while. Usually I get totally sidetracked listening to it and just repeat it again and again; the music is gorgeous, and the lyrics speak to me in a way very few ever have—or probably ever will.
Okay, are you ready for the shocker? It’s, ummm….
Crosby, Stills, and Nash.
Okay, stop pointing and laughing, dammit. No, I’m not going all mushy in my old age. Well, not entirely, at any rate. Nor is this old punk-rock scoundrel turning hippie in his dotage. I’m still a rock and roll guy, I promise ya. I might not be Hard As A Rock (ahem) anymore, but I do still possess the ability to flex and stiffen on occasion, from something other than lifting heavy objects or moving around a bit. No, really. I mean it.
Anyways, the specific song I’m speaking of here is this one:
Now, of course the melody is lovely, and the harmonies are like some heavenly choir; it is CSN, after all. I’d love the song just for the music alone, it’s certainly enough, and stands on its own. But it’s the damned lyrics that reach deep down inside my chest and churn me up so completely that I can feel my throat clench and the tears well a bit. I swear, I hear this and it feels like it was written just for me. Indulge me a bit while I explain that; I promise it ain’t just entirely egotism and narcissism. First, the sailing stuff, which I have never actually done but have always had a deep fascination with just the same:
Got out of town on a boat goin’ to Southern islands
Sailing a reach before a followin’ sea
She was makin’ for the trades on the outside
And the downhill run to Papeete
Off the wind on this heading lie the Marquesas
We got eighty feet of the waterline nicely making way
And then last two lines of that verse start to get personal:
In a noisy bar in Avalon I tried to call you
But on a midnight watch I realized why twice you ran away
Oh, ouch. I never called anybody from a bar in Avalon, but I’ve sure endured a prolonged breakup or three from various other seedy bars and/or hotels across the nation back in my road-dog days. Their scenery is more colorful and interesting, but the sentiment remains the same. And with that opening volley, we’re off and running.
Think about how many times I have fallen
Ouch again. I mean, really ouch. I swear, there are days when I wish I could think about something, ANYthing, else.
Spirits are using me larger voices callin’
Well, I like to think so, anyway. I know for sure that I have performed above my ability once in a while, and written songs I really didn’t have a whole lot to do with, more like just taking dictation. Those days get fewer and further between as I get older, but they still come along now and then, and are still in a measure what I live for. It’s been that way for, hell, forty years now. And the memories of it will keep me smiling till I finally drop.
What Heaven brought you and me cannot be forgotten
Bang, zoom, first direct shot to the heart. That’s me, my ex-wife, and our precious child right there.
(Around the world) I have been around the world
Well, not entirely. But closer than many, I guess. And not all that many are fortunate enough to get to do it on the strength of their music, either.
(Lookin’) Lookin’ for that woman girl
(Who knows she knows) Who knows love can endure
And you know it will
Um. Again, I’d like to think so. But I’ve become pretty cynical about that these days, honestly, and I can’t say I’m even looking anymore. I had it once, and it’s a rare enough thing that I don’t think it will be coming around again. I was lucky to have it the first time, even though it was all too brief a time before she was taken from me. Anyways.
When you see the Southern Cross for the first time
You understand now why you came this way
‘Cause the truth you might be runnin’ from is so small
Ouch. Another direct hit.
But it’s as big as the promise, the promise of a comin’ day
So I’m sailing for tomorrow my dreams are a dyin’
Yep, rounds on target and firing for effect now for sure. Enemies in the open, the artilleryman’s meat and potatoes.
And my love is an anchor tied to you tied with a silver chain
A twofer here: both my ex, and our child, methinks.
I have my ship and all her flags are a’ flyin’
She is all that I have left and music is her name
Annnnd target destroyed! That’s the line that has actually, literally made me sob out loud, and more than just once, too. Another chorus, then we get…
So we cheated and we lied and we tested
And we never failed to fail it was the easiest thing to do
Yep, the ex again. More than one of ’em, actually, and I’ve experienced it from both sides, to my eternal shame and regret.
You will survive being bested
Somebody fine will come along make me forget about loving you
Well, okay, it can’t ALL be dead on the money, right?
And the southern cross
And that last flip little statement is what really stands the whole thing brilliantly on its head, I think, and brings it on home. See, it’s a bitterly ironic little fillip, a little nothing that punctures his last hopeful conceit and leaves him a salt-sprayed wandering wreck: he knows he ain’t ever gonna forget the beauty of the Southern Cross, and he also knows it’s the same with his lost love. The comfort the sight of the Cross brings him, wonderful and welcome as it is, will never be quite enough. The relief it provides is profound, soothing…and temporary.
The grief, on the other hand, will stay with him forever; the best he can hope for is the occasional random moment of beauty and transcendence, wrapped around the eternal pain of his loss. He can learn to make a livable accommodation with that grief over time, but he will never leave it behind entirely.
And that’s something I know a little about, too, and had to learn the hard way, in a pretty tough school.
Okay, all self-indulgence and navel-gazing aside, it IS a truly great song all the way around, ain’t it? There are plenty of folks out there whose reaction to those amazing words has been the same as mine, of course: that feeling that the writer or singer is speaking directly to you, about events and emotions that feel entirely personal and relevant to you personally, is what separates a great song from a merely good one, and elevates what might be a mere pop confection to actual High Art. When an artist can achieve that universality, that connection, across time and space with so many people, he’s speaking with the voice of God indeed. Or so I believe.
I’ve never reached those heights in my own songwriting; in truth, I’ve never really even attempted it, and wouldn’t dare. It’s my belief that it’s not something you can consciously, intentionally do, although I know there are plenty of writers who have done it again and again over the course of their careers. But I ain’t one of ’em; it’s entirely beyond my ken, and my own trifling ambitions have never run that way. And really, I’m okay with that. I know an awful lot of people, more than I ever dreamed, have gotten some little joy out of my work. And that’s enough for me.
But boy, what must hitting such lofty heights feel like? “Southern Cross” was released in 1982, and once in a while I still hear it on the radio; I heard it earlier today, in fact, which is what put me in mind of it and got me listening over and over to the classic-rock disk with it on there that I keep in the car (okay, okay, I admit it: I keep a LOT of classic-rock disks in the car).
CSN had plenty of other hits too—and damned good ones, might I add, many of which I greatly enjoy. But that song is the one that sticks with me most out of all their catalog, and speaks to me the loudest. It’s endured for all those years and never gotten at all stale, at least for me. Damned respectable achievement, if you ask me.