Listening to the radio today, I heard Elvis Costello’s new song, “The River in Reverse,” produced by New Orleans’s own Alan Toussaint, with its refrain “Wake me up, with a slap or a kiss.” A melodic and sinuous tune, it seemed to me to obliquely convey harsh, heavy, of-the-moment echoes of Hurricane Katrina, and of our present hell of idiotic terrorists and their perfect counterpart, the overbearing weight of our own freedom-compressing, reactionary overlords. The song is very present-tense.
Next up was Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey.” This song evoked for me both the early 1980s when I first discovered Van Morrison, and the early 1970s when he recorded it and I was a young child. Coming as it did after Costello’s quick musical soaking in our present moment, the disjunction I felt was striking.
Of course, Tupelo Honey is a finely crafted piece of sweet love emotion, a feel-good thing any time. Like any good song you love, it opens up a personal matrix of feeling-memory-evocation. But the juxtaposition with The River in Reverse brought, for me, something more. Immediately I felt the frame of history rising around this song, Tupelo Honey, this artifact. I felt the memory of a time when a rockin’ pop song could still rise above our background cynicism and dread, and just feel good.
Okay… that’s still possible. But not, for me, in this instance. This song, which I have cherished, now seemed to me like a piece in a museum of modern art.
(And I suppose I suddenly seem old enough to have been contemporaneous with the art of the generation now passed, recently acquired into the permanent collection.)
Tupelo Honey is simply a love song, but it reminds me of a time when, yes, there was war, and mistakes, and bad judgments, and poverty and pollution and all the rest. And it reminds me of a time when there was a terrible enemy, and uncertainty about whether our world would survive intact. But above all, what I heard today was the echo of the many years now past when we could hear Van sing his song, and feel that love-vibe in his craft, the art of our time, a pleasure we could all share, somehow unknowingly reassured that our nation is sometimes right, sometimes wrong, sometimes sublime, sometimes despicable… but on balance, healthy.
Nowadays that simple reassurance is gone for me. We hate to look around us. We inextricably plunged ourselves into an international catastrophe, the complete rupture of a poor but proud country into a pit of violence with no escape, initiated by our relentless, senseless, unnecessary bombing of a capital city millennia older than our own. We blithely started a high-stakes game, the outcome of which was fore-ordained as, at best, barely tolerable, and, at worst, a total loss.
At home, the powerful use fear as a tool to beat us down has won, and we, once proud Americans, are now just bobble-headed, overworked, blinkered, compliant debtor-consumers. We are lied to, and we expect it – some of us even think it’s good for us. Neither media nor government cares to discuss or investigate serious charges that our electoral system is being rigged. We are saddled by a national debt so enormous that it will hang around our necks until I am beyond retirement and heading for the grave. The era of rising wages and expectations, a signal chord of the time of Tupelo Honey, is gone: only a difficult struggle against a global race to the bottom lies ahead. Recently I saw the global warming movie, An Inconvenient Truth. No one can leave the theater without knowing we are responsible for what is coming, the end of nature’s magnificent equilibrium, and still we are doing nothing. I fear, heartsick, that the city of New Orleans, home of my alma mater, is starting to fade into the history. In the long term, the Crescent City doesn’t have the future that Baghdad has.
Sure, there are villains abroad. But they don’t matter so much to me as the question, what about us? What is our deal? Because now, as not back then, in the 20th century, we are unavoidably implicated in things that are terribly, irretrievably wrong. And I look around me at the good, intelligent people I know, and what I see is that it seems we are impotent to act to make right. I am an optimistic person. But it’s hard, any more, for a simple good love song to feel so good.