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Jim Clark: Music

One Night Late

(Jim Clark)
July 28, 2007
Words & Music by Jim Clark

Tongue-tied, with Sore Fingertips,

and Little to Show

 

     First things first, a song that you have to explicate is probably not such a good song. And secondly, in terms of song structure it’s probably not a good thing to have a chorus that has the same chord progression as the verses. So on the face of it, my new song “One Night Late” has at least two strikes against it. Still, I like it, and so I’m writing this little apology for it.

     Songwriting mystifies me. You’d think that someone who has spent his adult life writing and teaching writing, and who has played a variety of musical instruments since early childhood, and who has over 6,000 CDs in his collection, and who cherishes making music above most any other pursuit, would be a natural. Alas, it is not so. I’ve been trying seriously to write songs for over thirty years and so far I’ve written maybe seven or eight that I think are tolerable. Combining my twin loves—music and writing—has proven to be an exasperating exercise in, most often, futility. I wish I knew why. I can sit around and play guitar all day, happy as a musical clam. Or I can fiddle obsessively with a poem, even a few lines of a poem, all day quite contentedly. But when I actually sit down with my guitar to try and combine these two loves of mine I generally end up tongue-tied, with sore fingertips, and little or nothing to show for my travails at the end of the day. So maybe a little phenomenological analysis of a songwriting session that felt good and produced what I still think of as a pretty good song will help.

     I began “One Night Late” (I didn’t have a title when I began) in May 2006 in Atlanta while attending my first meeting of the South Atlantic Modern Language Association Executive Committee, to which I’d recently been elected. The first line that came to me turned out to be the first line of the song, “I heard Phil Ochs on internet radio.” I guess it didn’t exactly come out of the blue, as I’d been listening to Neil Young’s recent “protest album” Living with War while driving from my home in Wilson, North Carolina, to Atlanta, about a seven-hour drive. I opposed the war in Iraq from the beginning, and am still proud of my copy of a poster for a gallery reading in Raleigh, on February 21, 2003, featuring “NC Poets Against the War” which lists my name among others who read that evening. Lately I’ve also been reading a lot about the resurgence of “protest music,” particularly as an internet phenomenon. And the great 1960s folk singer Phil Ochs has always seemed to me a particularly romantic character, so much talent and such a short, tragic life. So completely and unfairly obscured by the shadow of his contemporary and sometime friend Bob Dylan’s gargantuan success. Anyway, the line sounded a little like the beginning of the old organizing song “Joe Hill” (“I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night”), but not too much, and the “internet radio” bit gave it a contemporary feel.

     On the drive home to Wilson on a sunny spring Sunday, somewhere near the Georgia/South Carolina border, I started singing the lines, “If Jesus was here he’d climb back on the cross / He’d walk straight back in the shadows of the tomb.” It occurred to me that these lines would probably give some people fits, but they felt right. They seemed to have a kind of potency, perhaps deriving from their near-sacrilegious claim, but they seemed to possess a glimmer of humor, too. Anyway, I began to get a fuzzy picture in my mind of the guy singing those lines. That may sound a little odd to some people who think of the singer/songwriter genre as being peopled with confessional artists whose hearts are all displayed prominently on their sleeves. All I can say is that much like my poems, the “speaker” in my songs is sometimes very personal and close to me, and sometimes not. So the speaker of this song seemed to be expressing his anger and disgust at the current state of the world through these, to some, shocking lines.

     Since Jesus had already appeared in these lines, I kept working with that, and soon came up with the line “Loaves and fishes and horses and wishes,” coupling Jesus’ miracle with the old saw “If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride,” since miracles do often seem to be prompted by wishes. Perhaps my favorite line of the song, it sounds a little like John Prine to me. Then, the reference to the miracle of the loaves and fishes started me thinking about other stories from the New Testament and so I stuck in the line about the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, which has always seemed pretty harsh to me. Sure, I understand that it’s partly a cautionary story exhorting the faithful to be watchful and well prepared, but I can’t help feeling sorry for those poor foolish virgins who fell asleep and then got shut out of the banquet hall while they went to buy more oil for their lamps. And what about those stingy, selfish wise virgins, who basically tell the foolish virgins, “Well, I guess that’s just the way the cookie crumbles.” I mean, how Christian, exactly, is that? And the bridegroom, of course, is not having any of the foolish virgins’ excuses. He closes the door on them and there they sit, gnashing their teeth in the outer dark. And there was my chorus:

 

         Loaves and fishes and horses and wishes

         The virgins go begging to the cold-hearted bridegroom

         If Jesus was here he’d climb back on the cross

         He’d walk straight back in the shadows of the tomb

 

     I had a blast singing that for a while in the car, but eventually started wondering what it had to do with Phil Ochs. Well, it seemed to me that it could possibly be the chorus of some obscure song by Ochs. What if the guy singing the song was listening to internet radio one night and heard a song by Phil Ochs that he’d never heard before? Who knows? Maybe it was a special, mystical event that no one else experienced. Maybe nobody had ever heard this particular Phil Ochs’ song before, or since. Maybe the ghost of Phil Ochs was sending this guy a message about his (the singer’s) own time, via the internet. That’s all pretty much subtext, I guess. I don’t know that the song itself articulates all that, at least not obviously. The last lines I got in the car driving home to Wilson that day were the last three lines of what became the first verse:


          I heard Phil Ochs on internet radio

         One night late as I worked from my home

         In an outlying province of the old imperial

         Lost and forsaken U. S. of A.

 

     I’ve always had a pretty sentimental, romantic view of the bohemian U.S. folk music scene of the late 1950s and 1960s. In my mind I always see these young scruffy and intense but attractive countercultural types sitting around in a jumble of guitars and candles and bottles of wine in some old house or funky apartment, thinking big thoughts and dreaming big dreams and just doing a lot of hanging out. And so I put the folksinger and novelist Richard Fariña, a contemporary of Ochs, into the song, singing harmony with Phil Ochs, while this lonely, disconnected modern guy sits in front of his computer monitor late at night working from home and listening to the song, idly jotting down a few of the words he hears:

 

         And Richard Fariña was harmonizing sweetly

         To a song that I knew but had never heard

         In the pre-dawn light of the millennial morning

         I scratched these words on the back of a bill

 

     At this point, I got seriously intrigued by the idea of a Phil Ochs/Richard Fariña collaboration and started doing some research. As far as I can tell, no official recording of such a collaboration exists, but it also appears that it did occur, perhaps more than once, at live concerts. I found several reports of Ochs and Richard and Mimi Fariña playing on the same bill at a number of folk festivals and concerts, and at least strong suggestions that they did play together on occasion. I also discovered that Ochs had hanged himself in April of 1976, almost exactly thirty years from the time I began working on “One Night Late,” and that Richard Fariña’s fatal motorcycle ride, after a celebration of the publication of his first novel Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, in April of 1966, occurred almost exactly forty years from the time I began working on the song. This interesting conjunction got me back to work on the song, which I pretty much finished in two sessions on two subsequent days in my bedroom about a week after I’d begun the song.

     The next verse is the most specific about the old folkies, and their lives, songs, and other artistic productions. I’m still not sure if you absolutely have to be a folk music aficionado in order to appreciate or understand it. The first two lines refer to the deaths of Phil Ochs, in 1976, and Richard Fariña ten years before in 1966: “Now it’s thirty springs since the chair and the belt / And forty dark years on a fast motorbike.” Ochs committed suicide by hanging himself in his sister’s house using a belt and a chair, and Fariña died as a result of a night-time motorcycle wreck. I’ve always felt that the folkies of the 1960s were so harsh in their criticism of the America of their time because they were so in love with the idealistic promise of the country, hence the line, “The country you loved is a dream you took with you.” The final line of the third verse refers very specifically to Fariña’s novel, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, in which a threatening “monkey demon” appears as an evil, malevolent force. The final reference, to “John Train,” will most likely elude anyone not familiar with Phil Ochs’ biography, particularly the last months of his life. Near the end of his life, Ochs, under the influence of his own worsening mental illness as well as alcohol, would sometimes adopt an alternate personality whose name was John Train. Train was the antithesis of Ochs—a selfish, boozing, brawling, destructive, right-wing shady character who claimed obscure connections to the CIA.

     The fourth verse is certainly the most direct and explicit in terms of its social and political criticism. I worried that it was too didactic, but in the end I decided that it does a pretty good job of saying just what I wanted it to say. The situation of religion in America, particularly fundamentalist religion and its relation to politics, has concerned me for at least a couple of decades now. When respected religious leaders (and not fringe nut cases, though this distinction is increasingly blurred) begin to make statements encouraging the U.S. government to assassinate political leaders with whom they disagree, things have gotten out of hand. And when religious leaders create and foster a climate of hatred and disrespect toward those they view as sinners—homosexuals, for example—which sanctions the motives of those who commit hate crimes and murder, the situation has become intolerable. I see a disturbing trend today among many who call themselves Christians to use the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, to justify vicious, hateful, vindictive, or repressive behavior toward those of whom they disapprove, forgetting or ignoring the actual message of Jesus Christ who mainly preached love and forgiveness. As for the “leaders are liars” line, I doubt I need to be much more explicit. I hardly see how politics in America could become any more Orwellian than they are now.

     In the final verse, I tried to come to some kind of closure. It’s nearly morning, and the guy singing the song has either just woken up after falling asleep at his computer or has been awake all night. A mourning dove (often a symbol of peace) coos by his window, but then it’s startled away by a fleet of helicopters flying overhead, perhaps from a nearby military base. In a nod to the war in Iraq, he sadly imagines they are “practicing up for their appointment in Samarra,” a reference to Somerset Maugham’s literary recasting of the Arabic tale in which a Baghdad merchant sends his servant to market to buy provisions. The servant quickly returns, telling the merchant that while at the market, he encountered Death, dressed as a woman, who made a threatening gesture. The fearful servant requests a horse from his master so that he can ride away as far as Samarra, where Death will not find him, and the merchant obliges. Later, the merchant goes to the market and also encounters Death and he asks Death, “Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant this morning?” Death replies, “That was not a threatening gesture; it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”

     Well, that about does it. What have I learned from this little exercise? Generally, when I try to write a song I start focusing too much on form, on formal poetic elements like rhythm and rhyme. This despite the example of most of the great contemporary pop songwriters I love—Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Neil Young, James Taylor, Smokey Robinson—who mostly tend to use rhyme sparingly, irregularly. I was pleased that “One Night Late” didn’t have too much rhyme in it, and yet it seemed coherent and well made, of a piece. In fact, about the only thing that distinguishes the chorus from the verses is the fact that the chorus does have an abab pattern of slant rhymes. Finally, what seems to hold this song together is its rhythm. And maybe that’s the lesson here. The music is the formal, organizing element, not the conventional rhythm and rhyme of formal poetry. “One Night Late” is full of anapests interspersed with iambs—“And leaders are liars who prove war is peace”—because that’s what the rolling, repetitive chord structure (somewhat reminiscent of Woody Guthrie’s “Deportees,” a friend remarked) requires. Granted, it’s a minor epiphany, but it’s probably enough to make me try again, as soon as my fingers stop hurting.

 

One Night Late

 

I heard Phil Ochs on internet radio

One night late as I worked from my home

In an outlying province of the old imperial

Lost and forsaken U. S. of A.

 

And Richard Fariña was harmonizing sweetly

To a song that I knew but had never heard

In the pre-dawn light of the millennial morning

I scratched these words on the back of a bill

 

            Chorus:

            Loaves and fishes and horses and wishes

            The virgins go begging to the cold-hearted bridegroom

            If Jesus was here he’d climb back on the cross

            He’d walk straight back in the shadows of the tomb

 

Now it’s thirty springs since the chair and the belt

And forty dark years on a fast motorbike

The country you loved is a dream you took with you

Now it’s monkeys and demons and the ghost of John Train

 

Where men of the cloth preach murder and hate

And leaders are liars who prove war is peace

One nation under a vengeful God

Whose son disappeared on the road to right now

 

            Chorus

 

A mourning dove sang from a bush by my window

As a squad of Blackhawks roared up from the south

They’re practicing up for their appointment in Samarra

Then all was quiet, the bird it had flown

 

            Chorus

 

See YouTube video here:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yY4hUKt84HI