Lately, I’ve had a lot of time to sit and think. Well, I guess that’s only partially true: I’ve had the time, but not always the capability. You see, for over week, I’ve apparently been dealing with an e coli infection, but I didn’t get a diagnosis on it until last Friday. Long story short, I’ve been stuck in a recliner or my bed sleeping or watching Netflix for going on 4 straight days and, finally, today my fever has reduced to a level that allows me to think more clearly.
And something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit is Billy Bragg & Wilco’s album Mermaid Ave. I hadn’t really thought of that album much in a long time -it came up once this summer, and I’m sure that has it’s own significance- but this morning when I got up to take my antibiotic, I heard the tail-end of Billy Bragg on Democracy Now and even though I’d nearly ignored my music collection (of which I’m rather proud), in favor of fever-friendly Saturday Night Live 1990-91, I had to put on Mermaid Ave this morning.
Since it came out, that album has consistently been a part of my life -sometimes in ways more significant than others. We listened to it regularly driving our half commute to school when I was in grade school: I was always bothered by “Hoodoo Voodoo”, not because the song mentions kissing a lot and at 9 I thought that was gross (I didn’t) but, really, the guy wasn’t pronouncing “kissing” right (“kissle”? seriously?) and seemed so happy about it. Also, his voice cracks a bunch of times and, all around, the song wasn’t clear enough for my young mind.
In high school, I often sought comfort from long, late night walks under the stars. “California Stars” had long been my favorite track on the album, but soaked in hormones, that song, so beautifully crooned by Jeff Tweedy, was like a hymn. I’d sing it in times of trouble, unease and in times of joy. I’d scrawl lines in notebooks and tap the rhythm on desk tops. The fact that most of my day dreams involved leaving California didn’t seem to matter.
The track “Ingrid Bergman” always seems to find it’s way back into my head; “Walt Whitman’s Niece” has never ceased to amuse (nor encourage my interest in poetry, for a time particularly Whitman); “At My Window Sad and Lonely” was probably the saddest song I could think of when I was 9 that wasn’t a Beatles song, sometimes I think it still might be.
A song that has always struck me, and rarely with the same resonation, is “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key”. There’s a power to it I could never quite grasp. It’s an endearing song, calming, if a little sad. It almost tells a story -I’m sure that’s what drew me to it as a Waldorf student- but there’s some elusive sadness to it, too. It’s a beautiful song, that much I’m certain of.
All in all, it’s an incredible album. Find a copy, take a listen.
*Edit 10 months later:
This album consistently pops up in significant times in my life. Over the last few years, it seems to come back every time I’m in transition, approaching transitions or need to address that a change is gonna come.
Recently this came up in a break up. I have doubts of anyone actually reading this, so I don’t hesitate to say it was an excruciating one. One night, outside of Prospect Park, staring up at the huge arch of Grand Army Plaza, I was waiting to look someone who’d ripped my heart out in the eye and let out some of my then stewing rage. To calm myself, I put on this old friend of an album. “Eisler On The Go” came on and I heard it in a fresh, soothing way. The chorus goes like this:
Don’t know what I’ll do
I don’t know what I’ll do
Eisler’s on the come and go
And I don’t know what I’ll do
I could have easily sobbed into those “don’t know what I’ll do”s but my resolve strengthened with each instead. It gave me hope for all the amazing things I could do next.
Last weekend, it was Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday. I went on a date out to Coney Island for a screening of a documentary from 1999 on the making of Mermaid Avenue. “California Stars” brought out this ironic homesickness, given the context it was framed in in the documentary (the terrible conditions of laboring refugees escaping the Dust Bowl) and I was left with this whole new, non-personal frame for the entire album.
Is Mermaid Avenue another coincidence threading through my life? I’m curious to see it’s next incarnation.