#11: Eels – ‘It’s A Motherfucker’ (2000)


It’s fun when the prettiest, most-heartfelt song on an album is named, ‘It’s A Motherfucker’, and it’s even more fun when you quickly realise that there is nothing fun about his use of the word. Then it stops being fun. He isn’t being flippant, or perverse – it’s just simply the strongest and most suitable word he can conjure to explain how terrible it is “being here without you”, wherein “here” means this room, this house, this city, and this spinning orb.

As with most music of the broken heart type, first assumptions are that this is about a lover lost – but this isn’t necessarily so: Mark ‘E’ Everett, the primary songwriter for Eels, had suffered a shocking number of personal tragedies in his life up to this point. The previous Eels record, 1998’s ‘Electro-Shock Blues’, deals with his mother’s then-recent death, and his sister’s institutionalisation, electro-shock treatment, and subsequent suicide. By comparison, 2000’s ‘Daisies Of The Galaxy’ seems lightweight – a more regal pop sound, shinier production, and even a hit single with the cheery chorus “God damn right, it’s a beautiful day.” But the darkness was never too far away; even that aforementioned hit was titled ‘Mr E’s Beautiful Blues’. And sitting in the middle of the album is a bare piano ballad, 1940s strings draped over its tired shoulders like a smoking jacket – 105 of the saddest, most beautiful seconds of music you’ll hear.

‘Eleanor Rigby’ (by Ringo and The Beatles) is often praised for getting across so much exposition in so few words, but it seems like ‘War and Peace’ compared to this sparse, emotionally-fraught offering. The language is simple, the details are non-existent, but it’s somehow rendered so vivid by the few words he does muster energy for.

He thinks about “good times”, and”bad times” both, and struggles to get through Sundays. He knows that he won’t ever be the same. He says next to nothing, but we know how he feels. I’m sure that more than a few helpful people told him that ‘time’ is all it will take, which is lucky, because time is all he has at this moment.

A flood of overwhelming memories plus endless hours to slowly wade through them all is rarely a happy equation: mathematical speaking, it’s a motherfucker – and sometimes that’s the only effective way to describe it.

@200sadsongs | @keirenjolly | @nathanjolly


#10: Frank Ocean – ‘Bad Religion’ (2012)


“If it brings me to my knees, it’s a bad religion”, sings Frank Ocean in the most moving track on the masterful ‘Channel Orange’ – a sentiment he stretches and elaborates on further at the very end of the song: “It’s a bad religion to be in love with someone who could never love you”, he explains, “I can never make him love me.” This is the crux of Ocean’s heartbreak. It’s different to flat-out rejection, as circumstances dictate that he was never even a contender for the object of his affection. There are barriers which cannot be ignored or knocked down, which adds to the heartache. He doesn’t even get a chance to try.

‘Bad Religion’ – and the entire excellent album which houses it – are forever linked to the confessional letter Ocean posted on his Tumblr days before the release of this record. The letter, all caps, all heart, and typed on an archaic DOS-based version of Word, details the first time Ocean fell in love – with a man. It was effectively his own public outing, with Ocean writing in part: “4 summers ago, I met somebody. I was 19 years old. He was too. We spent that summer, and the summer after, together. Everyday almost. And on the days we were together, time would glide. Most of the day I’d see him, and his smile. I’d hear his conversation and his silence…until it was time to sleep. Sleep I would often share with him. By the time I realized I was in love, it was malignant. It was hopeless. There was no escaping, no negotiating with the feeling. No choice. It was my first love, it changed my life.”

Ocean had been fucking with personal pronouns for a while in his songwriting, so the more observant of fans were already semi-aware – it’s hard to ignore his line in Odd Future song ‘Oldie’ where he raps “I’m high and I’m bi – oh wait… I mean, I’m straight” – but still, this was a deliberate and bold statement, made as he was about to unleash his most high-profile work to date. “I feel like a free man”, he wrote, ending the letter: “If I listen closely.. I can hear the sky falling too.”

Ignore the ridiculous art on this video – this is the song.

‘Bad Religion’ finds Ocean spilling about this one-sided relationship to a cab driver, using him as his own personal therapist as he implores the driver to keep the metre running while Ocean attempts to “outrun the demons.” It’s a fruitless race, but the opportunity to be truthful without any fallout is enough to justify the ever-climbing cab-fare. The opening organ bars sounds like both a hymn and rock radio – the very station you’d imagine the radio in a taxi to be set to. It’s also a shock that nobody has mashed this with the similar-sounding ‘Fix You’ but it’s very possible they have, and I didn’t Google it.

‘Channel Ocean’ should be a difficult listen, with its hour-plus running time, disinterest in sticking within a single genre for more than a few minutes at a time (fearlessly leaping from Motown-sounds to EDM to gospel to hip hop to Prince-pyramid-sex-funk), opening Playstation 1 Street Fighter sample, and its release into what was/is a largely-homophobic hip hop community. But it’s not difficult. It’s challenging, sure, but in the way most classic records are. (‘Pet Sounds’ and ‘What’s Going On’ aren’t walks in the sonic park either.) Your mum will love it. Your dad will be impressed by it. Your nan – well, she’s dead. It also sets an impossible bar: Ocean has gone four years since its release without a peep, even after promising the release of a follow-up album in July 2015, then letting the month past with neither comment nor CD. It’s safe to assume Frankie is feeling the pressure.

Then again, maybe not. Maybe he is operating on a completely different timeline to the rest of the music industry. Maybe – despite the very public support of his coming out – things are quite different behind closed doors. Or maybe he is just enjoying his late 20s without the pressure of being a public figure, and with the benefit of having earned enough money and acclaim to never need to work again. He has disappeared from social media and therefore the public eye (although he dipped back in last week to offer this heartfelt Prince eulogy) and that’s fine. Maybe, he just doesn’t feel the need to drop to his knees for what he now deems to be a bad religion. Whatever the reason for his public absence, I hope he is enjoying it.

After all, no matter how things seem at the time, the sky never truly falls.

@200sadsongs | @keirenjolly | @nathanjolly

#9: Bonnie Raitt – ‘I Can’t Make You Love Me’ (1991)


Nashville-based songwriter Mike Reid was thumbing through a local paper when a story caught his eye. A man was arrested after getting drunk and shooting holes in his ex-girlfriend’s car, which is the Southern version of the “final nail in the coffin” analogy. Upon sentencing, the judge asked him if he had learned anything from the fall out, to which he said, “I learned, Your Honour, that you can’t make a woman love you if she don’t.” Ding, ding ding!

Not surprisingly, the two guys who penned the song – Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin – traditionally wrote country songs, and their first instinct with this bad boy was to speed it up and record it bluegrass-style. Soon realising the use of a time machine would be the only way to appeal to actual fans of bluegrass, they slowed the song down, noticed its considerable weight, and approached three big-hitters in the big voice, big hair, big emotion game at the time: Bette Midler, Linda Ronstadt, and finally Bonnie Raitt. Luckily Raitt was both keen to record the song, and the very best choice of the three, with Ronstadt being too gutsy a vocalist, and Milder often treading through treacle.

The emotion in Raitt’s one-take performance was so raw and perfect that she couldn’t get close to it on subsequent takes, and so her very first recorded run at the vocal is the very version you’re listening to now in that Uber you’re paying far too much for. You know you can ask him to change the channel, right? (Don’t though, this song is great.)

I first heard the aforementioned ‘Your Honour’ tale on a segment of ‘This American Life’ in which Starlee Kine details – upon other things – the powerful comfort of simple, otherwise cheesy, break-up lyrics when you are going through a split yourself. This song has these lines in droves. Detailing one last night together after she finally gives up on her relationship, Bonnie’s pleas are both pathetic and strong – she knows he doesn’t love her, but she doesn’t care, she just wants one final night where it feels like he does – even if she has to actively block any sign that indicates this simply isn’t the case. This night is for her though – which is where the strength crawls in – it’s for her to get through things, for her to achieve closure. She doesn’t even want him to patronise and pretend, just to be there in body if not in spirit while she deals with all of this.

Aside from the chorus, the start of the second verse contains the saddest part: “I’ll close my eyes, then I won’t see, the love you don’t feel when you’re holding me.” She can’t see it, but she can feel it though. And more than that, she knows it to be true, and she knows that it is completely outside her realm of power to do anything about it.

The one glimpse of hope comes with the fact that she is determined not to string things on past that night. “Morning will come, and I’ll do what’s right: just give me till then to give up this fight. And I will give up this fight.”

Don’t worry, Bonnie, everything looks better in the morning.

@200sadsongs | @keirenjolly | @nathanjolly

#8: Elliott Smith – ‘I Better Be Quiet Now’ (2000)


Christ, where do you start when it comes to picking an Elliott Smith song for a project called ‘200 Sad Songs? (not rhetorical: email me.)  I could have written exclusively about his catalogue for all 200 songs and still be annoyed at the end that I didn’t get to ‘New Monkey’, such is the spectrum of what Faulkner once called “the fuckedest emotion” (nah, he never said that). But, the point remains that ‘I Better Be Quiet’ (which I would refer to as iBBQN if a) ‘copy and paste’ and ‘infiniteinternetspace’ weren’t two of the more unalienable rights in #2016 and b) It didn’t sound like a horrible meat-cooking phone app) is one of the more brutal gut-punches in Elliott Smith’s deep catalogue.

‘iBBQN’ details a weird type of regret/depression not often touched, an emotion I’m going to dub the Kubla Khan Effect where you briefly see and experience paradise – in this case, love and domestic comfort – and then have to live with the knowledge of your diminished universe without that love. ‘Hate It Here’ by Wilco is another of these songs, where his everyday existence is just lessened, every redundant household chore a reminder of this. It’s a deep and dark song about a very universal subject.

“If I didn’t know the difference, living alone would probably be okay” is the best line in the song, and certainly the emotional anchor, if not the melodic one. There are so many great one-liners in this song, although it seems sacrilegious to use such a ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ term for Elliott Smith lyrics. Anyway if I quoted all the great lines (‘zingers’ as Elliott no doubt called them) from this song I’d need to give him co-writing credit and frankly I’m  not willing to do that, so let’s leave this with this: the song that follows this one on ‘Figure 8’ starts with the line, “I have become a silent movie” which proves Elliott was operating on a different level.

Smith, of course, now lives in relative obscurity in Connecticut with his outsider artist wife, and his dog, and his recording studio and lalalalala.

@200sadsongs | @keirenjolly | @nathanjolly

#7: Bob Dylan – ‘If You See Her, Say Hello’ (1975)


“If you see her, say hello”, begins Dylan’s most emotionally bare song, and an underrated gem from his catalogue. “She might be in Tangier”, he adds hopefully, which is a hilariously specific place to seemingly just pull out of the blue, which suggests one-to-five of the following options.

a) He has thought about this a lot, and narrowed down the location accordingly, landing on Tangier as her likely place of escape.

b) Dylan’s proto-parents William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and co. would often live in Tangier for months at a time, and he suspects one of those beat-writers of having stolen her. Or suspects she is following this well-worn pilgrimage and blames himself – because Dylan is definitely the type of husband who bangs on about Kerouac a lot.

c) She left an address and a phone number behind, and Dylan knows all too well that she is there, but he isn’t chasing after anyone, as he is both the weatherman and knows which way the wind blows.

d) ‘She’ is actually poet Alan Ginsburg, last seen floating in the background of Dylan’s ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ clip, who Bobby misses a lot.

e) Dylan just found out about Tangier, and has began weaving it into/hearing it in conversations in that way you do when you learn a new fact/word and then see it everywhere.

Of course, the answer is a blend of b) and f) “It’s a pretty-sounding/looking word which happens to rhyme with hear and represents an exotic, far-flung location”, but whatever his reason for picking Tangier (he refers aloofly to having heard she was there, although this is clearly a lie), he never resolves her whereabouts – not that it’s too important to the story. She has left, and Dylan misses her.

This is the most personal song in Dylan’s hefty, but often emotionally-removed, catalogue. Jakob Dylan, who actually lived it, has the best take on ‘Blood On The Tracks’, the album this song is on, calling the record “the sound of my parents fighting.” If that’s the case, ‘If You See Her, Say Hello’ is the sound of Jakob walking into the lounge room and witnessing his father crumpled and crying holding a photo of his mum. It’s the most openly heartbroken the usually bulletproof Dylan has allowed us to see him, and it’s all the more effective when put in the context of the rest of his recording output. It’s also a rare example of his most powerful lines being the most stark. Dylan is obviously an amazing wordsmith, but this often clouds things, entire albums describing the edges of things rather than focusing in. “We had a falling-out, like lovers often will” is all he will say about the split, other than alluding to some real shit going down the night she left (lovers don’t up and leave of a night unless real shit went down). She clearly occupies most of his mind, yet he only passes along a “hello” message. You know who I say “hello” to? Most people I talk to.

He gives a resigned cap-nod to her independence too, even if that’s the very factor keeping him from being with her: “I always have respected her for doing what she did and getting free”, he sings, and I believe him. It’s heart-wrenching to hear him howl the words, “And I’ve never gotten used to it, I just learned to turn it off”, although Dylan being Dylan – aka: the Jimmy Dean/Dylan Thomas/Dylan McKay/Matt Dillon/Jack Kerouac beat poet, gun-slinging, train-hopping, whiskey-gulping maestro that he is – this song ends with an epic kiss-off, the dismissive, closing line, “tell her she can look me up… if she’s got the time.”

It’s all bluster and bluff though, we know he’d fly to Tangier (or Russia or wherever) if he had any inkling she wanted him back – but she doesn’t. She wants Tangier.

@200sadsongs | @keirenjolly | @nathanjolly

#6: Belinda Carlisle – ‘Summer Rain’ (1990)

It seems rather flippant to highlight the sadness of one of Belinda Carlisle’s more poppy songs on the morning that Prince died suddenly at the age of 57. As a bastardised mix of ‘Purple Rain’ and this song  (“Summer Rain, Summer Rain”) loops in my head like a mantra, and Anderson Cooper interviews everyone from Stevie Wonder to session musicians on TV about Prince’s tragic exit, it seems futile to point out how dramatic the strings are in this Belinda song. But they are. And one tragedy doesn’t take away from another. So, let’s begin.

There’s a certain feeling that dramatic, minor-y songs thrust onto you before you are old enough to fully realise what that involuntarily body surge is. It’s like being scared, or sad, but that’s not quite it. After all you aren’t shivering or crying, so that can’t be it. It’s a type of emotional overload, and you never quite forget it, even while struggling to describe it on a blog 25 years later. I remember this weird feeling with Madonna’s ‘Like A Prayer’ – all the dark religious symbolism – I felt it with Jason Donovan’s depressing, sepia-stained cover of ‘Sealed With A Kiss’ (after luring me in with the romantic candy of Kylie duet ‘Especially For You’ mere months earlier), and I felt it with ‘Summer Rain’. Speaking of Kylie, I was too old by the time ‘Where The Wild Roses Grow’ came out – but I’m sure that elicited a similar response for many. Maybe it’s true that this is the devil’s music, after all?

‘Summer Rain’ deals in all the romantic farewell cliches: a train fast arriving to tear two lovers apart; whispered goodbyes; promises that nothing will change; a blanket of rain as if to underscore the tragedy; slow-dancing in said rain to freeze time and rally against the hopelessness of this scenario; an impending war and the uncertainty that implies; a CityRail conductor with a whistle hanging from his neck, wearing a packet of Twisties like a glove. All that ‘Casablanca’ shit.

Despite – no, actually because of – all this, ‘Summer Rain’ holds up nicely as a doomed love story. The strings add a wealth of dark weight, despite being digitally arrived at, the keys in the intro and verse sound like droplets of rain, and the swelling music leading into the chorus actually sounds like someone running alongside the carriage, waving and wishing for one last desperate embrace. You can hear the train pulling away.

‘Summer Rain’ is written from the perspective of the one left behind, this one last, perfect evening immortalised in her memory. She knows that while ever she replays this in her mind, he isn’t gone, and boy does she cling to this. The various sense-memory triggers in the bridge – lightening, thunder, wind, even the act of closing the window – suggests she isn’t going to get over this for a long time, nor does she seem in a rush to do so. It’s a tragic tale that hits hard because it has been played out countless times over the centuries – always terribly cliched, and always terribly singular. And that’s war for you, kids. Vote McGovern.

@200sadsongs | @keirenjolly | @nathanjolly

#5: No Doubt – ‘Don’t Speak’ (1995)


Despite that fact that Gwen is now at the level of a one-name Madonna, Beyonce, Miley pop star (although she stubbornly refused to surrender her surname for pop immortality) No Doubt were still an unlikely success story in ’95. Coming off the back of two coolly-received ska albums, the band’s prospects were so bleak that Gwen’s brother Eric left in 1994 to take an animation job on ‘The Simpsons’ (although that is a pretty sweet career move).

The band’s third album ‘Tragic Kingdom’ skates (then kick-flips) away from the cartoon ska on their first two albums towards a more polished pop sound: horn blasts were relegated, upstrokes were minimised, and although the sarcastic ‘Born and Sold Out in the USA’ label on the cover art acts as a disclaimer (earnestness was sooo lame in the mid ’90s) – No Doubt were predestined for the toppermost of the poppermost. It was very obvious that Gwen Stefani was a superstar.

Whether it’s the pigtails, the casual cool chick clothing, the skateboarder friends, the ska band rockin’ out in her garage, the fact both boys and girls felt un-threatened by and attracted to her, or a combo of all these elements – Gwen Stefani just seemed like she understood the crushing subtleties of high school heartache more than most artists in the mid ’90s. ‘Don’t Speak’ was the purest distillation of this – a stirring ballad detailing the dying days of a relationship. “Don’t tell me, ‘cos it hurts” is a raw nerve of a line, but it’s also a denial of sorts, a block your ears lalala refusal to acknowledge the end. “You and me, I can see us dying, are we?” It’s so pathetic, and so relatable, with the meek “are we?” anchored to the end as a last-ditched effort to (kick)flip a fact into a question.

Of course, there was very real pain behind this song, too, and you can hear it in her vocal: No Doubt bassist Tony Kanal broke up with Gwen after a seven year relationship, then stayed in the band because long hours in cramped spaces with your newly-minted ex rules! It was – in hindsight – the savviest move he ever made, with the album selling over 16 million copies. I think it’s safe to say it’s the world’s highest-selling ska(ish) album of all time.

@200sadsongs | @keirenjolly | @nathanjolly

#4: Tom Waits – ‘Martha’ (1973)


There’s a scene in the first Muppets movie where the furry, felt-featured gang are at a car dealership trading their car for a van big enough to take them to Hollywood. They met Sweetums – a eight-foot monster whose job at the car-yard seems to alternate between car jack, and tow truck – and invite him along, to which he screams ‘Hollywood’ and scuttles away scared. The gang shrug, get back onto the road, and you cannot see any of the strings. Then Sweetums comes back out with his suitcases, looking all excited until he realises they have left without him. His heart breaks in which is quite an upsetting kicker to an upbeat scene – but I always felt that it should have been tailed by a montage of Sweetums walking mournfully in the rain, singing sadly to himself, and the voice should have been that of Tom Waits.

The throat of Tom Waits is an otherworldly beast of an instrument – a whiskey-soaked, acid-scratched howl that can flip from mournful sailor to drunken, crazed tramp to anything else between. What he cannot sound like is a kid in his early 20s. Remarkably, given both the depth of feeling and this lonely hound dog howl, ‘Martha’ was recorded a few months after Waits turned 22. It’s a shock to realise this – least of all because if you have only known Waits as a jacket-toting elder statesman, it would be easy to assume his vocals were gravelled-up by age and abuse (see: Bob Dylan, Madge from ‘Neighbours’) but it would appear from his debut album that he was born with a cigar in his mouth and bourbon on his breath.

The real shock comes with the depth of the lyrics in ‘Martha’ – Waits was remarkable at capturing a sense of deep regret and longing for a lover past. There’s a certain hubris in a 20-something attempting to capture the wisdom and well of emotion of someone in their twilight years – as if the old poets had to love and lose, fight wars, battle addictions, and “rage, rage against the dying of the light”, whereas these kids can just imagine it all. There are only a few rare examples of young artists who can capture this (see: Don Walker, Paul Simon, Madge from ‘Neighbours’), which is why Paul Simon can still play ‘The Boxer’, while Mick Jagger had to stop singing the youthful ‘Satisfaction’ forty years ago… Well, he should have, at least.

The conceit of ‘Martha’ is that he is reaching out to a past lover after many decades without contact. He is calling collect – because first impressions count – and requesting a coffee date to “talk about it all” – the “all” taking on a heavy weight. Also, I’m sure he didn’t refer to it as a ‘coffee date’. There are a few scattered signs that betray Waits’ age – the undergraduate rhyming of “tomorrow” and “sorrows” and “roses” and “prose” in the chorus are the main obvious ones – but old people can be shit at poetry too. The wealth of emotion behind the sparse bar-room piano, his gravel-pit voice, and the yearning (oh, the yearning) makes it easy to skip over such trivialities.

The second verse introduces husbands, wives, kids to the picture – remnants of full, long lives spent separately – and hints at his past inability to make her feel secure, a theme that is visited more fully in the third verse. “I was always so impulsive, I guess that I still am” suggests this call was hastily made after a bottle of whiskey, while, “All that really mattered then was that I was a man” indicates their conscious uncoupling was very much the fault of his male bullshit. He knows it, and he knows it’s too late. That’s the real tragedy of this tale: all the late night phone calls and remembrances are ultimately useless. He destroyed something worthwhile back when he had it, and while time is great at healing wounds, it also erases love.

The most heartbreaking part is the one-line coda that brings the tale to an end: “And I remember quiet evenings, trembling next to you”. Whether the couple are making love or freezing through the winter nights together, this is the most intimate line in the song – and perhaps in Waits’ entire career – and a sad hook to hang his bowler hat on. Ultimately his most crystalline memory is the most tender they shared, and that’s the real ghost that has haunted him – not the wasted decades, not his male posturing or impulsiveness, but those trembling, loving evenings he will never experience again. And all this from a 22-year-old.

@200sadsongs | @keirenjolly | @nathanjolly

#3: Cat Stevens – ‘Father and Son’ (1970)


The most futile and frustrating conversations happen between people of different generations. The younger person buzzing off that opiate rush of new sounds, new sights, new loves, new emotions which hit once, and only briefly. The elder: well aware of this brevity, and of the way such youthful impulses mask considered thought.

Neither will listen. Neither will learn. Neither can. It’s okay though, this is how it is supposed to be.

‘Father and Son’ captures this gulf between generations in a way that is yet to be topped, and whereas most of rock and roll (in a general sense, I know this song is as ‘rock’ as a Ronan cover) is built upon the cornerstone of different generations clashing, oppressing, and straight out not understanding maaan – rarely has a writer come at both sides of the argument with such calm clarity. In 1970, when this song came out, the Western world had come off the back of the most socially-torn decade since – well the one that preceded it – but with the Vietnam War, racial tensions, second-wave feminism, communal living, marijuana, LSD, and the burgeoning sexual revolution (pre-AIDS, post-Pill, mid-sitar jam), there seemed a larger gulf between the generations than ever before. And here was 22-year-old Cat Stevens, calmly surveying the landscape, taking both sides, acting with a cool maturity that belies a dude who calls himself Cat Stevens.

The economy of the storytelling here is astounding, tying up years of resentment, misunderstanding, and knowledge in a few short verses. (Original drafts of the song contained a more concrete narrative about the Russian revolution, which we were thankfully spared ‘cos nothing rhymes with ‘Kremlin’ – at least nothing you can expose to light, water or feed after midnight.) The most impressive thing is how even-handed Cat’s perspective is, sailing effortlessly between the raw restlessness of the son, and the measured wisdom of the father. The father has been where his son is, and knows that nothing worthwhile comes quickly, which is why he can dole out some truly yen, and slightly patronising advice – “just relax, take it easy”; “take your time, think a lot”; “find a girl, settle down” – although his relaxed views on marriage seem remarkable for a man of his age, especially back in this lock-‘er-down-start-a-family-in-the-burbs-why-doncha-son era.

Vocally, the switch between the father’s measured lower-pitched voice which opens the song, and the son’s anguished cries a few verses later is amazing – and in terms of songwriting, the ‘double-father-verse opener coupled with sparse acoustic’ (a combo worthy of ‘Killer Instinct’) means that when the son’s high-pitched rage finally enters, it is startling. The father’s meditative calm makes you listen and nod, but this son’s anger makes you take notice. The age-old “God, Dad, you’re not even listening to me!” (slam bedroom door, put on headphones) is succinctly summarised by the stunning, “From the moment I could talk, I was ordered to listen” – one of the greatest one-liners in musical history.

In the end, it is all futile. The son is burning with a fire that cannot be quelled with mere advice, especially considering nobody in human history has ever had the feelings or the thoughts that he is having at that very moment. You know how it goes. He needs to break free and make something of himself. Everyone hits a point when they outgrow the comfortable life that seemed to fit fine mere months earlier; when you want to break free, to start something new, something that is yours and yours alone. Something scary, something unknown, something you can’t put into words, but can feel perfectly. Remember that feeling? Hell, this might be how you are feeling right now, your bags packed and hidden under a blanket in your walk-in wardrobe while you sit on the edge of your bed and work up the fortitude to walk downstairs and begin this very conversation. It is a beautiful thing you are feeling right now, and you need to chase it where it leads you. The conversation won’t go well. Neither of you will listen, but this doesn’t matter because – like the son in this song – you know you have to go away. The rest can be worked out at a later date, when you are both older, and wiser – and have maybe converted to Islam.

@200sadsongs | @keirenjolly | @nathanjolly

#2: Joni Mitchell – ‘The Last Time I Saw Richard’ (1971)


Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’ is my favourite album, which is why I can’t listen to it very often. “Songs are like tattoos” she sings on the title track, and you should really take this as a warning.

‘The Last Time I Saw Richard’ closes the album, and finds Joni recalling a barroom conversation three years prior in which an older ex-lover (apparently her first husband Chuck Mitchell, although Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young probably all think it’s about them) attempts to quell her youthful lust for life with some sad, sage wisdom: “All romantics meet the same fate someday: cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark café.” He is projecting his misery onto her, scoffing when she laughs this off, and cheapening her desires to a list of romantic cliches: “roses and kisses and pretty men to tell you all those pretty lies.” C’mon, dude! Richard is forceful and bitter, but don’t feel sorry for Joni here: she cuts through his bullshit by claiming he is merely romanticising his pain, as evidenced by the dreamy love songs he puts on the Wurlitzer even while he bemoans the very concept (fucking BOOM!). Richard talks hard, but Joni can see through that bullshit.

As time-stamped in the first line (more songs should do that) this scene is placed in 1968, three years before ‘Blue’ came out, so the Joni in this song is reckoned by Richard to be a more innocent Joni who will inevitably follow him down Bitter Avenue (it’s probably more of a cul-de-sac, actually, and it’s never too late to turn around, Richard!). Thankfully on ‘Blue’ her eyes still seem “full of moon”, with all the heartache and joy that being alive and open to experience usually entails. Not ol’ Richard though, slumped on some bar-stool, all his emotion dulled by years and beers. Fuckin’ Richard. The closest she gets to Richard’s sorry stance on ‘Blue’ is in ‘Little Green’ – another song with a conversation across an age gulf – when she explains to the child she gave up for adoption at 21 (her, not the child, although putting a 21-year-old up for adoption would be quite the move)  that “there’ll be icicles and birthday clothes, and sometimes there’ll be sorrow.” Whereas this line is a gentle warning of duality to a child born into a cruel world, Richard just seems like a jaded dick – a sunshine stealer, as Jenni Konner calls it.

Richard got married to a figure skater, Joni tells us in verse three, even though that’s not an actual profession – which leads me to believe Joni is simplifying this woman’s life. Richard is surrounded by the trappings of white-goods and mortgages, he now drinks at home most nights with the TV on –  the cafes and bars replaced with something infinitely more sad: a man trying to drink himself far from the nest he built around him, paying a monthly fee for Home Security to patrol if the infa-red alarm goes off, his kid on his lap, his wife in the other room, stepping on Lego as he curses and walks to the kitchen to refill his sad little whiskey glass. None of that latter stuff happens in the song, of course, but you can tell that it’s there.

The final lines of the song find present-day Joni (1971 Joni, anyway) sitting at a dark cafe repeating the actions Richard warned were inevitable. Whereas Richard is resigned to his fate, Joni seems certain “all good dreamers pass this way some day”, as if this is merely a transitional stage, and one she already has a cautionary tale for. “Only a phase, these dark cafe days”, she reminds herself in the final line, and judging by the four decades of joyous, sad, alive, oddly-tuned music she made after this record, she was wise to relegate Richard’s bar-room philosophy to bullshit inward suffering, and nothing else.

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