Thursday, April 27, 2006

The Annotated "City Middle"

For whatever reason, the academic side of me had always been fascinated by those Annotated Grateful Dead lyric books. Not only did Garcia, Weir and Hunter write a ton of songs, those songs were also packed with allusion, history, hidden meanings and inside jokes. The depth of meaning each song can hold is staggering, and while much of the information is rather trivial in the big picture, occasionally you learn something that deepens the song's meaning or reveals the lyricist's inspiration.

Recently I started reading Jonathan Ames' novel Wake Up, Sir after reading The National's Matt Berninger recommend it in an interview. The book really is an entertaining read and I see a lot of similarities in Ames' and Berninger's writing styles; among other like qualities, both have keen eyes for absurdity as it relates to their characters.

Part way through the novel I came across a paragraph that informs a line in "City Middle" I had always found interesting:

I have weird memories of you
Parking your car, you said, I'm overwhelmed
You were thinking out loud, you said, I'm overwhelmed
You were parking your car, you said, I'm overwhelmed
You were thinking out loud, you said, I'm overwhelmed
You said, I think I'm like Tennessee Williams
I wait for the click
I wait, but it doesn't kick in
I think I'm like Tennesse Williams
I wait for the click
I wait, but it doesn't kick in

The mood of despair here had always stirred something in me. It's dire and real, however the second half of the line always escaped me. I knew what it meant or what it was supposed to mean, but I couldn't give it any meaning to add to the emotional connection I drew from the first section. Until I came across this paragraph in Wake Up, Sir.

In Ames' story, the main character (reluctantly aware of his alcoholism) sits down to dinner in a small town restaurant and bar. He orders a beer and is powerless to keep from drinking, despite his best intentions, fully knowing that his weakness at this moment will lead him into certain trouble.

Then I took a second long sip, nearly finishing the beer, and feelings of transgression left me. There was no more awareness of possibly doing myself harm, whether I found it thrilling or not. You see, that Tennessee Williams click arrived almost immediately. The click that says: Everything is going to be alright. I guess it's a lie, but it's a very believable lie.

I sometimes find it amazing that one form of art can inspire another in such a meaningful way. That one person can respond to something, turn it around in their creation, and build on that initial emotion. It's enough to make you believe everything really might turn out alright.

The National || City Middle [Black Sessions live, here in full]
The National || High Beams [unreleased*]

"Karen take me to the nearest famous city middle where they hang the lights"
Kansas City's Plaza in the winter

* If anyone can tell me anything about when/where this was recorded I would love it/you.


Katie said...

Man, someone needs a hug. :)

Mr. Nap said...

Thanks for the links. Funny I just started a Jonathan Ames book today. Becouse of the same interview you mentioned I bought the german version of 'I pass like night'

Anonymous said...

Great site loved it alot, will come back and visit again.

David Dodd said...

Wonderful post, and thanks so much for the mention of the Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics!
--David Dodd

igowithfergus said...

Ames is referring to a speech by the character Brick in Williams' play "Cat On a Hot Tin Roof".

Check it out -->

Brick: Something hasn't happened yet.

Big Daddy: What's that?

Brick: A click in my head.

Big Daddy: Did you say, "click"?

Brick: Yes, sir. That click in my head
that makes me feel peaceful.

Big Daddy: Boy, sometimes you worry me.

Brick: Like a switch clicking off in my head.
Turns the hot light off and the cool one on.

Brick: All of a sudden, there's peace.

Big Daddy: You're a real alcoholic!

Brick: That is the truth.

Anonymous said...

Ten years after you wrote this I've had this lyric rattling around my head all week long. There was something about it that has resonated with me, I wasn't able to place it, but after your blog it has all come together and the meaning is so clear. Thank you!