I was travelling on Life’s Highway feeling keen about my trip. I took a sudden left and gave my past the slip. I headed down a back road and left my past behind. It felt good to have some freedom, good to have no mind. Good to go exploring and see what I could be. I had this sunny feeling someone’s watching over me. I was off to do some damage, I was on for having fun. Thinking this is the best big bad thing that I’ve never done.
I was travelling light and easy, nothing borrowed, nothing owed. Making up my own rules on the wrong side of the road. Wanting more of what I had, a little short on cash. Not content to be a ripple I was out to make a splash. Searching in my own way for a secret key to me. Seeking out the sweetest truths that life and love could be. The wind was in my hair, I was happy and it showed. I wish someone had told me even outlaws have their code.
There was music, there was laughter and a light upon the hill. There was drinking, there was dancing; I stopped and had my fill. There were cards upon the tables, guns secreted about, ladies in the doorways, I looked in but went without. No one’d seemed to notice as I’d sidled in. Soon there was no backing out, I had to sink or sin. When the barman was distracted I emptied out his till. I wish someone had warned me even thieves must pay their bill.
Met a monster, met a dreamer and watched their mansions burn. Met a preacher, met a teacher but I refused to learn. There were wise men from the East, magicians, saints and seers. A psychic said that I was immature for my years. Met a sailor, met a jailor who told me all they knew. Met a rambler, met a gambler; lots of people just like you! Met a woman just like me a-running from her past. No one told me she was crazy ’cos I never thought to ask
First we hung around the bedroom then we hung around the school. I tried to play the husband living by her rules. At first nothing was wrong, but soon nothing was right. Our love-making she said was like a one night stand each night. Each kiss became a sabre dance, each touch became a blues. Her words said “Give me loving” but her eyes said “Fetch my shoes!” I gave her beads and wampum trying to keep the peace, but her questions never ended – I was married to the police!
She told me I was hopeless, that I was just a sham. An empty dirty rained-on little puddle of a man. She said she had an inner life I could not comprehend. She said she had a lover whose loving didn’t end. Said she was tired of living in a ghetto made for two. I saw red before my eyes, I started turning blue. There was darkness at the doorway, darkness in my mind, and so I went out driving and just left my past behind.
I fell into a foetal heap as lonely as a church. I visited a shrink but got the one that I deserved. I tried to keep the demons out by holding them all in; the grief and grievous grievance, the silence and the din. Living in the woods in the cellar of a shack where shadows never visited, despair was my new black. There were women I remember who called me through my fears, but I didn’t trust their cooking and I didn’t trust their tears.
Every day in every way I searched my brokenness. Asking, never answering, where’s the meaning in all this? And so I took to gambling, dealing, drinking to forget. Saw a line drawn in the sand that I managed to side-step. There were red lights flashing warnings but I was colour-blind. There were darkened-alley jesters who said they knew my kind. I had shivers in my timbers, mud was in my eye. I carried on like that until I met Miss Lullaby.
She was soft and oh-so charming, all my darkness she could see. It was like she’d spent her whole life just a-thinking about me. Waiting for to give me everything she had. Never guessed she too was running; never guessed she too was mad. She said “You’re not the man you were, although you used to be. If it happened then it had to, but love can set you free. If it happened it was meant too.” Her words entrained my mind like the Moon does to a Werewolf and I left my past behind.
Took to dishing up the high life, living on a tab; buying stuff I didn’t need with cash I didn’t have. There were deals I entered into that I did not keep. There’s a man who tried to kill me sleeping fifty fathoms deep. There were diamonds and promises I chose to forget. I used to tell her “Darling, I ain’t even started yet.” Unnatural desires? Or maybe destiny? Now I hear that some detective wants a word with me.
Didn’t shoot no man in Reno, I missed the boat to Skye, but I killed a cop on Main Street driving drunk and late and high. Her perfume had me crazy, I just saw a man in blue. I wasn’t really thinking, any cop would do. Her voice was in my ear, slurred and speaking low, telling of some new friends she thought that I should know. Her hand was in my pocket, she was tightening my tie. When I asked if she was sorry all she said was “Why?”
I pulled some strings and paid some bribes and did a little time. Got straight and clean and sober and left my past behind. Left the town and left the country for the peace I thought I’d earned. Settled down and tallied up all the things I’d learned. I’ve learned that love can lay you low and lift you high above, and sometimes in confusion we can hate the ones we love. Just for having all that power that we give them over us. For the fear that comes from needing. For a need so easy crushed.
Now my daughter doesn’t know me, my son he doesn’t care. I found some fame and fortune but I lost something somewhere that I never thought I needed, didn’t even know I owned. I thought this life was given, didn’t know that it was loaned. Didn’t know that love could kill. Didn’t know that death could lie, or that I would be entree for the sweet Miss Lullaby. She took me out for breakfast and served me up my heart. But I’m gonna go on loving her; that’s the easy part.
Your past will always find you, in time life outs us all. I’ve learned that in the darkness passion comes before a fall. Deep down I’m kinda shallow, but still I have my pride. I’m fine till I’m with people then I want to run and hide. I know there is a power, I’ve seen it with my eyes. But its mystery escapes us; you see that when you’re wise. If you hear your past approaching light in woollen socks, it’s gonna teach you something and there’s gonna be a cost.
Now I hear my past a-wailing like a speeding train, carrying the ghosts of all my hopes and pain. I can feel that train a-rolling towards my body on the track, but though my past may kill me, I ain’t never going back. Perhaps I’m kind of slow; too late but now I see – I think I had the wrong dude a-watching over me. Woo, ooo….
Notes on: The Past (2013)
Once I got started on this it expanded and expanded until I got it out to eleven minutes plus. I started from four-line verses, then they spread out to six, then eight. As I wrote I noticed details lacking so I filled them in and the initial five verses eventually grew to fifteen. I started this from a lyric; I was looking for something expansive and serious. It took a while to settle on a melody and in fact there’s not really a melody, just a chord structure that I sing along with; it’s built like country music in that sense. I also keep a note-book of great lines, stuff I’ve dreamed up or overheard, and as I wrote I sprinkled them through it. It’s pretty dark but I wanted something that would round out the album, which is mostly fairly light (even Working Girl has a jaunty rhythm). I’m especially proud of the “woo-ooo” of the speeding train at the end.
The theme is intended to be very much that the singer is the author of his own doom. He can’t really blame the women in the song for his misfortunes; he did that all himself, although, granted, they might have behaved a little more sympathetically. Suicide is not a common theme in song, and is usually thought to be melodramatic, or at least, that’s how it gets treated. I think this is a bit different. All of his life has led up to the climax, at which point we see that it’s really the only option he has; he’s alone, his kids don’t want him, he realises the emptiness of his own life (“deep down I’m kind of shallow”), he has a terrible crime on his conscience, and he has changed so negatively and fearfully that now he avoids people. Even God isn’t much comfort (“its mystery escapes us, you see that when you’re wise”). His ‘wisdom’ has come at such a price that ending it all is his best choice.
The challenge for me in writing this was to make something both long and dense. Most dense songs are fairly short (well, most short songs aren’t dense either). I’ll never forget hearing David Ackles song Mainline Saloon for the first time. I kept expecting him to tire creatively, to throw in some insignificant words that were poorly related to the narrative but which got him from A to B, a nature metaphor or a trite analogy beginning “like…” or some mysterioso phrase that sounded meaningful but which upon analysis turned out not to be, but he never succumbed to temptation, and every word performed a purpose. It reminded me of some narrative poems, e.g.: J. H. Noyes’ The Highwayman, where every word, phrase, line and stanza had a specific job, built upon what had gone before, deepened and developed the story line, as opposed to the meanderings of some supposedly great songwriters (you know who you are). And I like to think I got there.