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Sunday, June 23, 2013

See What You Lost When You Left This "Sweet Old World"

Sweet Old World

by Lucinda Williams

See what you lost when you left this world, this sweet old world
See what you lost when you left this world, this sweet old world

The breath from your own lips, the touch of fingertips
A sweet and tender kiss
The sound of a midnight train, wearing someone's ring
Someone calling your name
Somebody so warm cradled in your arm
Didn't you think you were worth anything

See what you lost when you left this world, this sweet old world
See what you lost when you left this world, this sweet old world

Millions of us in love, promises made good
Your own flesh and blood
Looking for some truth, dancing with no shoes
The beat, the rhythm, the blues
The pounding of your heart's drum together with another one
Didn't you think anyone loved you

See what you lost when you left this world, this sweet old world
See what you lost when you left this world, this sweet old world

For the past 30 years, Lucinda Williams has channeled her perspective as a proud but vulnerable Southern female into a string of stellar albums, each of which weave rock, country, folk and blues so tightly that each of the elements seems to disappear. Williams is known for her deeply personal lyrics and penchant for perfection.

Lucinda Williams (1988) was her breakthrough disc. Williams began to attract notice for her distinctive style, earning critical praise for her self-titled album.

It took Lucinda four years to prepare the follow-up to her masterful 1988 eponymous album. Her reputation as a singer-songwriter grew when she released Sweet Old World in 1992. When it finally arrived, Sweet Old World proved to be every bit the equal of its predecessor.

Williams also penned the song "Passionate Kisses," which became a huge hit for Mary Chapin Carpenter in 1993. The song brought Williams her first Grammy Award (for Best Country Song) that same year.

But, her magnum opus, 1998's Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, sealed her reputation as a formidable singer-songwriter. She went through three sets of producers to make the record. It earned raves for its tales of heartache set against a southern backdrop, and it brought Williams another Grammy win—this time for Best Contemporary Folk Album. Ruminating on disappointments, fretting over lost friends, and celebrating the subtlest of life's joys, it was an obvious masterpiece that resounds with immediacy.

I do not mean to dwell overly on the richness of Lucinda Williams "suicide themes." Her writing is full of many other concepts, emotions, and imagery. Yet, the delicate subjects of experiencing a person's premature death and, subsequently understanding its impact on the living are present in some of her most popular compositions. These songs evoke strong, visceral reactions  Others have covered this work. For example, Emmylou Harris recorded "Sweet Old World," and one cannot listen to her version without thinking about Gram Parsons.

Lucinda has spoken about the impact of suicide on her songwriting. She wrote "Pineola" about poet Frank Stanford, a family friend who killed himself in 1978.

Pineola (Partial Lyrics)

by Lucinda Williams

When Daddy told me what happened
I couldn't believe what he just said
Sonny shot himself with a 44
And they found him lyin' on his bed

I could not speak a single word
No tears streamed down my face
I just sat there on the living room couch
Starin' off into space

Mama and Daddy went over to the house
To see what had to be done
They took the sheets off of the bed
And they went to call someone

"Sweet Old World," the title track of her 1992 album, deals with the death of a poet she'd met at a conference.

A mutual friend called with the news. Williams asked why. The friend responded, "Well, he was just too sensitive to this world."

"My immediate thought was, 'B-------!'" Williams recalls. "I'm sensitive, too! I'm just as sensitive, and I didn't kill myself! We all have our big, dark days. I certainly had my God-can-you-just-take-me-now-I've-just-had-it-I'm-checking-out-let-me-off-the-train-I'm-done kind of thing. But, you know, I would never actually do it. I just can't imagine what it would take to do that."

In that spirit, her song "Seeing Black" opens with this line: "How did you come up with a day and time? You didn't tell me you'd changed your mind."

Seeing Black (Partial Lyrics)

by Lucinda Williams

How did you come up with a date and time?
You didn't tell me you changed your mind
How could I have been so blind?
I didn't know you changed your mind

When you made the decision to get off this ride
Did you run out of places to go and hide?
Did you know everybody would be surprised
When you made the decision to get off this ride?

To me, "Sweet Old World" is personal, poignant, and so very telling of that which is most important in life. Notice Williams does not use material goods or status symbols as images of "what you lost when you left this sweet old world." Instead, she speaks of simple, soulful treasures left behind: each with a deeply personal human connection -- a touch of fingertips, a call of a name, a dance with no shoes, a loving kiss.

The listener can feel the undercurrent of Lucinda's scolding tone: "See what you lost...." Her mixed emotions of pining for the deceased, regretting his decision to commit an irreversible act, and simply wondering why he couldn't have overcome what others find the means to defeat is righteous, and it forces the listener to witness the complexity of dealing with the shocking, premature finality of suicide.

"Didn't you think you were worth anything?"

Williams uses the word worth in terms of the man's value to others as a human being, not in respect to his significant, egotistical "worth," or market and material value. She questions his ability to find happiness while on earth while suspecting he misjudged what was most important to sustaining hopefulness and spiritual prosperity in life.

It appears Lucinda is sharing her understanding of the life-sustaining power of being unconventional in a conventional world. She writes: "Looking for some truth, dancing with no shoes / The beat, the rhythm, the blues." Notice the lyrics do not say "finding truth." Williams' realistic words call attention to the importance of the hunt, dealing with struggles and accepting that the inherent, powerful rhythms of life sustain the search for love.

What is the essence of life and love and happiness? I'm not sure anyone can philosophize and save the life of a depressed soul who finds himself completely alone, defeated, and lost. How does a professional reinstall the necessary love and the important rhythms that drive the heart and soul with some scholarly words?

Brain-balancing chemicals can help provide maintenance and serve as a substitute for natural purpose and love, but those drugs also alter the mind as they keep a suicide victim above the flat line. Thanks to treatment, the feelings dull and the rhythms fade.

To survive, the person who "fears life" must find, within himself, the simple joys he has locked away from his existence. I doubt if anyone who experiences the connection of "the pounding of your heart's drum together with another one" will choose to leave that love or his life. Johnny Cash once sang it like this: "Flesh and blood need flesh and blood, and you're the one I need."

"Didn't you think anyone loved you?"

The answer to the question in the final lines of "Sweet Old World" is evident. The suicide victim did not "think" about the "love" he possessed but lost when he took his own life. Others did love him but he didn't "think." You see, before he died, he had already lost the faculties to understand anything "sweet," or anything remotely gratifying, because his own flesh and blood could no longer taste the steady drive of the palatable sensation.

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