Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Living

The Living (from the album Ophelia)  

What's it like there outside 
with the living? 
from this broken down place 
where I hide 
from the living 
from the living 

Cause I don't care to stay 
with the living 

 O, the bottle has been to me 
my closest friend and 
my worst enemy 
afraid that I've walked a fine line 
squandered it all and 
wasted my time 

And I don't stand a chance 
among the living 

All the lovers I've gambled and lost 
count my mistakes 
whatever the cost 
I'll go off, I'll make myself scarce 
come tomorrow 
you won't find me here 

Cause I don't care to stay 
among the living 

No, I don't think I'll remain


Sometimes people will say they didn't like a film or book because it was too sad. Or they liked everything but the ending because the ending was too sad. I've never found this a particularly compelling reason to dislike something. If a filmmaker or a writer has given me an experience, without tricky manipulation, that leaves me genuinely moved, even gutted, I never resent them for that. Life as we know it is not just comedy and adventure, it's mourning and pain. Being moved by the lives of others, whether real or fictional, is a reminder that we are alive, capable of empathy.

However, I can understand feeling like you never want to read a particular book or see a particular film ever again because of its effect on you. I have often left a movie theater thinking, "That was wonderful and I never want to see it again." And that sort of sums up my feeling about The Living. It's a song that is deeply moving but almost punishingly sad. I hardly ever listen to it. Here is what Natalie said about the song in the liner notes to her Retrospective album:  

"I often gave rides to an older black man named Robert who seemed sane enough but had made a complete ruin of his life with alcohol. He would catch rides to the town nearby to do odd jobs for small change that he would always spend on booze. He found out that I was a musician and he told me that he'd been a horn player. He'd even sat in Count Basie's orchestra for a while until he was caught drinking gin in the men's room on a break. He told me that he'd lost everything: his wife, friends, jobs, home, and connection to his children. 'The bottle, that's my worst enemy,' he would say every time I had him in my car. Eventually it even took his life. I wrote this song for him."

When I was a teenager one of my family members received a letter from my stepbrother. He was a lot older than me and we never lived under the same roof. I'd only met him once, very briefly, as a little girl. But I read this letter and felt like some wormhole had opened up between me and him. In retrospect, I suppose that letter was filled with a lot of typical AA hyperbole and nothing necessarily all that unique about him. But to me it was a revelation. I'd grown up surrounded by so many open secrets - "We all know what the truth is but if we don't talk about it then it doesn't really exist." Here, all of a sudden, was someone naming the problem and saying, "I'm not going to be this thing anymore."

The two of us started corresponding regularly. I got to know about his life - a life absolutely decimated by booze. He'd ruined so many relationships, lost so many jobs, even lived on the streets for a period of time. Sound familiar? He sent me a picture once. I could hardly believe he was only 40 years old. Alcohol controlled him and stole his youth away. Despite all that, he was charming and funny and clearly treasured every letter I sent him. There was never one thing I mentioned in a letter that he would fail to comment on when he replied.

We started making plans to meet each other properly. Then these little gaps between his letters started happening. Eventually I concluded what he could never admit - that those gaps signified some flying leaps off the wagon. It depressed me, not just because of what that meant for him but also, selfishly, what it meant for me. Here I thought I'd finally found an honest person to connect to, someone that made me believe we could change our family DNA - and even he couldn't be totally honest. Not when the truth was too hard to admit.

Those spaces of time when he wouldn't respond to my letters got wider and wider until eventually the inevitable finally happened. It's weird how when someone is calling you with bad news, you can somehow know it just by the way the telephone rings. I was 18 when my brother died. I know I risk making myself sound cold when I say this, but I do not anymore consider his death to be one of the great tragedies of my life. What I lost when he died was not the flesh-and-blood companionship that most people experience with a sibling. Primarily, I lost the idea of someone, the immediate hope of something with meaning and weight. That leaves a scar, but it's a small one, hidden beneath greater sorrows and far greater joys.

When I first heard The Living, I think I thought of the words as being touching, but also supremely self-pitying, which I found sort of off-putting. But now when I listen to it, I hear the words of someone who is merely accepting what is inevitable to them. I hear the words of someone who knows, despite any efforts they make or those around them make, that they are going to lose. As sad as it is, as frustrating as it is to listen to those words, I can't resent them. I know they are genuine.

*****

That's all for me this time. Can you believe how short this post was? Look at me, I'm finally understanding brevity! Don't hold your breath, though. Thanks as usual for all your sweet emails and comments. I promise to cover something shiny and happy next time. Then again it is a Natalie Merchant blog, so...

See you next time!

Download The Living from Itunes - The Living - Ophelia