Five years ago, early on Easter Sunday morning, I drove to meet a new friend at Cisco’s on East Sixth Street, Austin, Texas. I did not know it yet, but this person would change my life – where I lived, how I thought, how I spoke, how I saw the world, others, myself. It was the beginning of the end, the end of the beginning. Something along those lines.
My new friend was visiting from another state. As I drove to her sister’s house to pick her up for our sunrise breakfast , I was brimming with excitement. Excitement about this wonderful new friend, and about taking her to a sweet breakfast joint, but excited also in large part because I was listening to the brand new Bill Callahan record, “Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle.” I couldn’t remember a more phenomenal Easter – breakfast with a new secret crush at sunup, and a new record from a trusted and beloved artist. Huzzah!
There was something about that time, that person, and those songs. There was a swirling around them – not the nauseous kind you get at the end of the party. More the mystical, enchanted kind. Of course, the thing about enchantments is that there are “good” ones, and there are “bad” ones, and most of the time you can’t ever tell them apart until it’s too late. Or, you know, ever.
My new friend and I had been introduced by our mutual friend, Fred, a few weeks earlier. I had a fairly long beard at the time, and Fred had given me a nickname because of it. “Oh Holy Prophet” he called to me from across a semi-crowded room, “I want to introduce you to someone.” “Hi Holy Prophet,” she said as she shook my hand. “I’m the Harbinger of Doom.”
“Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle” struck me from the first chord. The swirling I had felt in the air during that whole spring formed into arpeggios, fit into melodies, was clothed in lines of lyric. “Something too big to be seen / was passing over and over me.” It was one of those records, one of those experiences of recorded music, that felt separate from its creator, from the historical context it had come from.
Okervil River’s “Black Sheep Boy” had been that for me, along with Crooked Finger’s “Dignity And Shame.” Both of those records had come into my life after my first major heartbreak, in my early twenties. I listened to them front to back, day after day, trying to understand how those bands had been able to write an album about my life, my heart and soul, in that very season. “Prophetic,” I would say quietly to myself, only half joking, sort of nervously looking over my shoulder to see if anyone was rolling their eyes or shuffling off their fleshly disguise for something a little more angelic. It felt like either it was a cosmic mean-spirited joke, or the beginning of a magic realism novel come to life, as if all of a sudden Will Sheff and Eric Bachman were going to walk in off the street, sit down in a booth at the shitty diner where I washed dishes, and tell me the grand reason I had been chosen for the pain I was feeling, all over a cup of coffee and chocolate chip pancakes. “Sometimes I Wish” was a similar type of record. But instead of telling me about what I knew was already going on in my life, it spoke to me of things less familiar. The feeling of direct communication from the songs was the same. I knew there was a message hidden there for me and me alone. I just couldn’t figure out what it was.
Callahan’s music had been important to me before this. As a songwriter, he had challenged me about the form a song can take, about repetition of lyrical and musical phrases, and of alternate takes on narrative. “What can a story be?” was a growing question in my fledgling creative brain. The songs on “A River Ain’t Too Much To Love,” his last record under the name Smog, had an almost Astral Weeksish spirit about them. I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear him flow from “let me see the colts / that will run next year” into a string of “say goodbye to madame georges” or “the love that loves to love the love that loves the loves.” That was my first introduction to any of his music, and it was very much a case of being at the right place in the right time for me. I was sold from there on in, even on the more awkward earlier Smog records.
As I began my relationship with this new record, I could tell there was something different than other Smog/Bill Callahan records. And it felt appropriate, because I felt that there was something vastly different about this woman, this budding relationship, than the others I had known. I felt that once again, an album was speaking to me about what was going on in my life. But what was it saying?
To tell the truth, it was saying some things that were still pretty uncomfortable for me to hear in 2009. “It’s time to put God away” was something that I did NOT want to hear. I worked for a small church in Austin as its music pastor, and my job and community were dependent on me keeping God decidedly unput-away! “This is the end of faith / no more must I strive / to find my peace / to find my peace in a lie.” Sounds awful and unknown and terrifying. Nope. No thank you, I’m fine with skipping that incredible last track to this prophetic record. Thanks very much, have a nice day, come and see us again.
The thing I didn’t want to hear in those lyrics wasn’t some vision of my life to come. What made me uncomfortable was the way the singer looked into me right then and there, assessed the situation, and then proceeded to tell me about it, no matter how badly I tried to look in a variety of other directions.
And that right there is the thing about true prophecy. It is not about predicting the future. It is not about telling us what is going to happen, and when and how. Prophecy speaks to today, to The Moment. “Woe Unto Thee!” says the prophet. “Hey you! Yeah, you, over there by the bar, with the trucker hat on. Yeah. You got some shit going on man. I can see it all over your face. I’m not talking about how you’ll die someday, dude. I’m trying to tell you about what is killing you right now. So listen up, cos this next one’s for you, you poor bastard.” Prophecy is the wake up call in the gut of your soul. It’s that voice, as David Bazan sings, “that still, small voice / begging you to shut the fuck up.”
In a radio interview for his latest album with the Bad Seeds, Nick Cave was asked about his song writing moving away from a narrative form to a more abstract form. “They’re still narrative songs,” he argues. “I write narratively. I’m a very visual person. It’s all about, every life is about seeing for me… I can’t write a song that I can’t see. So I don’t actually write in a more abstract way than what rock and roll is generally written about, which are these expressions of the heart, you know, ‘woh baby, i love you’ and all that sort of stuff. I feel it very difficult to write like that… These songs are narrative in the sense that it becomes a kind of tyranny of the narrative, because the listener always has to follow a story. Every time they listen to a song they have to follow this story, and I find that I’ve been for a long time trying to get away from that. So [my songs] are narrative songs but they’re so abstracted that the idea of following the story is kind of futile. They’re much more about entering into a world, and an atmospheric world.”
When the listener hears a man crooning about finding his thrill “on blueberry hill,” the world that they are invited into is a very closed and specific one. It doesn’t take much imagining to wonder what specific thrill, exactly, is happening on said hill. On the other hand, we have this scene: “she lay beside me like a branch from a tender willow tree / i was as still, as still as a river could be / when a rococo zephyr / swept over her and me.” This scene is far more ambiguous, giving the listener question after question, and answering few of them. “Well maybe this was all / all but meant to be / maybe this is all / is all that meant to be.” The head no longer knows, but the heart hears and understands. This is the way of the poet, and also the prophet.
Joseph Campbell spoke of mythology in the same way. “A living mythology is a composition of mythological symbols, and a living mythological symbol is an energy-evoking and directing sign. A symbol of this kind, when it is functioning, evokes energy immediately. It hits you as music that you respond to, as a picture that you respond to, as a face that you respond to. It does not pass through the brain in order to bring about its response. The interpretation of symbols is then a secondary matter. The symbol works of itself directly, immediately, touching a releasing mechanism in the psyche. The source of these symbols is psychological… Each of us is limited in his own way. Each of us is capable of experiences that are his own, and differ this way and that from someone else’s experience. And now, when a mythological image is presented to you in a rite, you should be allowed to experience it in your way. My point is, a ritual is an opportunity to participate in a myth. You are in one way or another, putting your consciousness, even the action of your body, into play in relation to a mythological theme… By participating in a ritual occasion, you are in a magical field, a field that is putting you in touch with your own great depth. And then to have someone come along with an interpretation of that ritual that does not correspond to your experience of it, you are being cut off from the symbolic experience. My point there is that the function of the church is best served when it gives people occasions and opportunities to participate in these great, eternal, mythic experiences without telling them how to experience it, without telling what the meaning must be. What I’m saying is that the rites work, but the dogmas don’t.”
Woh baby, I love you.
Song is symbol, and the prophetic song is a living symbol. It short circuits the brain long enough to kick you in the balls, to get the attention of your soul. Those drop-you-to-your-knees lines are rarely merely clever. They are doorways. They are questions. Or better yet, they are statements that produce questions in the listener, questions in your heart, before your head can even lip-sink the words to itself. “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” is a fine piece of pop music, truly top notch. And getting your Easter Sunday clothes on and singing “Nothing But the Blood of Jesus” with the congregation is a nice, classic slice of religion. But these do not stir the soul so much as affix it in cement right where it stands. But to gather with your brothers and sisters, to seek for something unknown but glimpsed, to sing softly “be thou my vision, o lord of my heart, naught be all else to me save that thou art” – these are not great statements of faith, but the murmuring of the Spirit, the breath that whispers “you live, child,” without spoiling the surprise of what you’re alive for. This is that young man questioning, “Could you find me? Would you kiss-uh my eyes? To lay me down in silence easy, to be born again.”
“The narrative song can very often take away the kind of sense of discovery from the listener,” Cave continues. “When you listen to a song, you want to feel like it’s your song, like you discovered it. That’s what makes a great song a great song, is that you feel, as a listener, connected to that song. It’s your song. You discovered it. You know more about that song than everybody else. It’s speaking to you more than it’s speaking to anybody else. That’s what makes a great song. And in a narrative song, you feel that the story’s already been told, and you don’t feel that same kind of connection of the soul to the song.”
Today is Easter again, in the year of our lord 2014. It’s been five years since that breakfast, five years since my life began to change so drastically, five years since I first heard that record. This morning as I made breakfast on my own, and washed the dishes in my small kitchen in the south valley of Albuquerque, New Mexico, I put “Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle” on the turntable. I hadn’t listened to it all the way through in quite a while. It amazes me now how true that record rings for me. To be honest, it’s still hard for my sweet little wide-eyed baptist boy soul not to believe that Jesus Christ didn’t reach down and touch the hand of Mr. Callahan as he penned these songs, whispering “There’s a young man who’s gonna need to hear what you have to say, Bill. You ready? Well, write this down.” There’s a fine line between magic realism and religious fervor sometimes. There’s also a fine line between metaphor and reality. Just because Jesus didn’t tell Bill Callahan to write those songs for me doesn’t mean that those songs weren’t written for me, or that Jesus didn’t have a hand in it, whether either of them knew it or not. (They didn’t.)
And here’s what it was they had to say to me, five years ago, and today.
I started out in search of ordinary things. I started telling the story without knowing the end. Now I’m not saying we are cut from the same tree. But like two pieces of the gallows, we share a common dream. It seemed like a routine case at first. With the death of the shadow came a lightness of verse. I used to be darker, then I got lighter, then I got dark again. I started running, and the concrete turned to sand. I started running and things didn’t pan out as planned. Somewhere between the wind and the dove lies all I sought from you. I dreamed it was a dream that you were gone. I woke up feeling so ripped by reality. Love is the king of the beasts, and when it gets hungry it must kill to eat. One last black bird without a place to be, turns around in hopes to find the place it last knew rest. I fell back asleep sometime later on and i dreamed the perfect song. It held all the answers, like hands laid on. In case things go poorly and I not return, remember the good things I have done. Maybe this was all, all but meant to be. Maybe this is all, is all that meant to be.
I put God away. I ended up in search of ordinary things.
Five years later. The relationship is gone. Fred, the mutual friend, is gone. The church in Austin is gone. The person I was then is gone. I’m afraid that Cisco’s might be gone too, though I don’t know for sure. But that record remains. And those other people and places and times remain in it. For me, “Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle” is as synonymous with Easter morning as Santa is with Christmas. And it is because these songs are able to tell not just their own story, not just the story of their author, but my story as well. We need poets, songwriters, playwrights, screen writers, to tell us our story when we can’t tell it ourselves. Maybe even when we can tell it ourselves. The reason we need prophets to connect our souls to their songs is that we need a song to connect our soul to.
I used to be sorta blind. Now I can sorta see.
Words: Seth Woods.
Seth Woods makes music as The Whiskey Priest. Feel free to check his music at Bandcamp.