Preston West, Victoria, November 2013
I don’t know much about Bill Callahan but a Filter magazine review of his album, Dream River piqued my interest: “In a world that increasingly rewards short attention spans and encourages distractions, Callahan’s music is well worth taking the time to patiently absorb”. Yep, I could follow that river all the way to the sea.
So I got Dream River and put it into a mix of about 15 or so albums. The first couple of times I played the mix (on shuffle) were while I was cooking dinner and mucking about on the computer. Almost wallpaper. If a song from Dream River came on during those plays it didn’t stand out.
Around that time I had surgery to remove a film of skin called pterygium, which was growing across my eye. For a few weeks after that reading was, if not difficult, certainly uncomfortable. Therefore I couldn’t indulge my usual habit, reading for an hour in bed before hitting the Zeds. Instead, I took to listening to my music mix on headphones. This is an unusual music listening mode for me but I must say I like it. Especially as I got me a sweet buzz on enjoying a number before bed.
So I was lying in bed, in the dark, headphones on, a little relaxed having taken the edge off, playing the mix when out of nowhere Bill Callahan’s The Sing started up. A pensive mood is established immediately by way of organ with drum being tapped gently (by hand?). Then Bill sings the first line, drinking, while sleeping. Bill has a deep yet reflective baritone and that added to the mystique. Strangers, unknowingly keep me company. Remember, I’m listening to this brooding tale in the dark.
A minute into the song Bill talk/sings what may be the best (and most simple) lyric I’ve heard in a long time and it goes like this: The only words I said today are beer and thank you (pause), beer, thank you (pause), beer (pause), thank you … beer. He is sitting in a hotel bar staring out a window that isn’t there. And I’m hooked. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry or both. What I do know is that he has set the story up so simply that now, even in a semi-sleepy state, I just wanna know the fate of our hapless protagonist.
Midway through the song, the tempo shifts from a rootsy sound, courtesy of a simple beat on clave and meandering fiddle into a soulful rhythm. At the same time the protagonist tells us that he has limitations, just like Marvin Gaye/ mortal joy is that way.
It is the simplicity of the sound, but mostly the words that captivates. He stretches a line (such as mortal joy) and then drops the second half of the line as if it’s a question or a direction (is that way). These are meaningful non-sequiturs.
At 3.17 minutes of a 4.32 minute song we know that a man is sitting in a hotel bar (I presume he’s travelling as opposed to a bar in a city that he lives) thinking about what he has lost or forsaken. He isn’t drinking to kill demons but time. I suspect he wants to return home but he doesn’t know how.
The last verse is the saddest and most profound:
The wind finds something to ping or the pinging things finds the wind
We’re all looking for a body or a means to make one sing.
It lifts the song above a self indulgent, self pitying yarn into an evocation equal to Johnny Cash’s I Still Miss Someone. The song leaves you wondering if it is the person he has left (or left him) or indeed himself that is the body he is looking for the mean to make one sing.
Alone, in the dark I felt his anguish and desolation. I can reach out and touch it. We are, as the song implies, a moment away from such loss and loneliness. How can we be so intelligent and still be unable to secure the most basic needs of love and warmth?
I sat up in bed, scared by what I’d heard. I expect songs to move me and to excite me or to make me sad. I’m never quite prepared for a song that, by revealing the protagonist’s innermost demons, reveals my own. Yet, even in its darkest reflection The Sing is plenty funny and still offers hope. And in hope we live on looking for a body or the means to make one sing.
© Rick Kane. Rick’s other Stereo Stories are about Culture Club’s Do You Really Want To Hurt Me? and Johnny Cash’s Here Comes That Rainbow Again. Rick is also a regular contributor to our partner site The Footy Almanac.